By and large, external rewards like promotions, employee of the month, vacation time etc are primary motivators in most workplaces. But do they work in creating lasting behavior? Research suggests that rewards succeed in securing one thing only: temporary compliance. 

In order to understand this, it’s important to distinguish the difference between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. Behavior that is driven by extrinsic motivation is motivated by rewards, like a promotion, or punishments, like a scolding from a prickly boss that is quick to snap if his coffee isn’t hot. Whereas, intrinsic motivation is motivated by an internal desire to do something for its own sake. Intrinsic motivation is much richer and stems from the meaningfulness of the work we do. This is not to say that only those of us who work in jobs that are explicitly rewarding can feel intrinsic motivation. A bagger at the grocery store could think of the job as a means to an end to get the bills paid, or as income and also an opportunity to interact with people and have a positive impact on each customer’s day.

Punishments tend to escalate conflict and shut down learning. They elicit a fight or flight response, which means that sophisticated thinking in the frontal cortex goes dark and basic defense mechanisms kick in. Punishments make us either rebel, feel shamed or angry, repress our feelings, or figure out how not to get caught. In this case, full-fledged 4-year-old resistance would be at its peak.

As for external rewards, psychologists have actually suggested that they can decrease our natural motivation and enjoyment. Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973) created the term “overjustification effect” to explain the detrimental effects of rewards on intrinsic motivation. A common example of this is when children go from enjoying reading when they first learn how to, to dreading it because they have to read for school assignments. When we pay more attention to the external rewards we will gain from a task, by consequence, we pay less attention to the actual enjoyment or fulfillment we receive from it. 

Neurologically speaking, why don’t rewards always work? 

Understanding how our neurological systems respond to rewards can help in finding what balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation will help in your workplace. A fundamental discovery in modern neuroscience found that dopamine neurons signal a prediction error, the error between what reward you expected and what reward you actually received, called the Reward Prediction Error (RPE). RPE can be used to neurologically understand burnout. When we tirelessly strive towards that big promotion, we remind ourselves each day of the payoff we will feel when we get the promotion, which we think helps us get through long hours and cope with the pressure and stress. Our reward prediction increases, leading to prediction error when the external reward of a promotion doesn’t trigger the dopamine we had counted on feeling. This tricks our brain into thinking that only a bigger promotion will fix this prediction error, which can easily spiral our desires into a loop of expectation and disappointment. 

A big mistake we often make in situations like striving for the promotion is that we forget to support the serotonin systems as well as the reward (dopamine) systems of the brain. Serotonin is considered “the happy chemical” because of its association with mood. Low serotonin production is associated with decreased focus and memory, which explains why we find it so hard to concentrate, even though we’re working so hard to stay focused. If we haven’t been supporting our other reward systems, we are likely to feel symptoms of burnout. 

What’s the fix?

Like with anything that involves so many intricate systems in our body, there is no one easy fix. However, there are strategies we can utilize in order to find the balance and avoid burnout. With a growing amount of research proving that rewards lead to burnout, employers are catching on to the need for change. However, below are some of the ways you can take matters into your own hands, whether you are an employer or an employee. 

  1. Record small accomplishments. Rewarding yourself for small accomplishments on the way to a bigger goal will help your brain disperse dopamine more evenly, avoiding the risk of prediction error. 
  1. Sleep. Dr. Christopher Barnes’ research found that productivity losses from lack of sleep are staggering. Drawing from other research studies along with his own, Barnes findings state that sleep plays a huge role in self-control, showing that lapses in simple attention are strongly related to sleep deprivation. In addition to behavior based evidence, neurological research shows that our prefrontal cortex, which is essential in self-regulation and executive functioning, is especially vulnerable to lack of sleep. So, one simple way to avoid decreased mood and attention is by getting the CDC recommended seven or more hours of sleep per night. 
  1. Find purpose in your work. No matter how absolutely soul crushing the work is, we get to decide what our attitude is. Asking ourselves how our work makes life better for even one other person is one way to invoke meaning and make the job more intrinsically motivating. 
  1. Learn to manage stress through controlled breathing. The path to the external rewards that are so commonly used to motivate us at work consists of the day to day pressure and stress that leads to burnout. For centuries controlled breathing has been used as a practice to promote concentration and vitality and science now too is catching up by providing research backed findings on the benefits of breath. And the best part is that even just one conscious breath can help in calming our nervous system. The “3-4-5 Breath can do just that. It’s simple – breathe in for three seconds, hold it for four seconds, then exhale slowly to the count of five. 

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