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De-Grading the Workplace

Grades The other day I mentioned Alfie Kohn, best known for his book, Punished by Rewards, which I devoured when it first came out and still return to from time-to-time. In one of those serendipitous moments that occurs so often in the blogosphere, a few days later I saw that Christy Tucker bookmarked one of Kohn's articles, so I clicked through to check it out.

Although 9 years old, From Degrading to De-Grading, is an interesting treatise on the impact of grades that not only is relevant to the educational system, but to the workplace as well. In it, Kohn argues that research has found three impacts of emphasizing letter or number grades:

  • Grades tend to reduce student interest in learning.
  • Grades tend to reduce students' preferences for engaging in challenging tasks.
  • Grades tend to reduce the quality of students' thinking.

So when you grade people's work and learning (whether by actually issuing grades or through badly thought-out performance evaluations and poor management skills), they will be less interested in learning, less interested in performing challenging tasks and less able to think creatively--the exact opposite of what we need at work.

Thinking about this is important, I think, because we have a tendency to want to find "incentives" that will encourage people to learn and engage in new workplace behaviors, but these incentives are often external, such as prizes, financial incentives, good performance reviews, etc. Kohn's research indicates, though, that linking learning to external rewards actually has impacts that are the opposite of what we are generally trying to achieve. Instead, we need to appeal to intrinsic motivators, such as people's desire to help others, getting enjoyment out of the task, feeling like they belong to a cohesive group and feeling like they're contributing to something meaningful.

One of the major problems with extrinsic motivation is that when the rewards end, so does the behavior you were trying to encourage. In fact, people will get angry that you've taken something away. People also tend to de-value the activity itself when you use rewards, because if it has to be rewarded, then it must clearly not be of value on its own.

Many of us are struggling with ways to encourage the use of social media in the workplace. As we think through our incentive plans, we might want to keep in mind Kohn's research on external motivators and find ways to appeal to people's intrinsic needs.

How can we structure social media participation so that it isn't dependent on external rewards? How do we help people see that effective use of social media can be rewarding in its own right?

Flickr photo via ragesoss.


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Your last two posts really hit home.

I entirely agree with the central thesis of your post, that grading students work actually degrades the inner quality of their commitment to higher values as those listed as intrinsic motivations.

In fact, the desire to help, the joy inherent to crossing barriers, the sense of belonging to a community, the awareness that the meaning of whatever we praise and respect may be deepened by our common effort, all those are priceless values clustered in the heart of human beings.

Besides, I believe they inspire free decision and courageous action because we recognize them as their own rewards.

However, they often just lye deep down, with no effective influence on the surface of daily life, because people are blocked in a system that puts them under pressure to hurry, produce, consume and agree with the "status quo".

Thus,in order not to be dependent on external rewards we must be constantly "redirected" towards our true center, "reorientated" to the inner realm where everything finds its true and relative place.

In school it requires a "one to one" relationship, small classes, flexible curriculum, collaboration in solidarity or non profitable initiatives, enhancing personal reflection by simple daily steps and free time to be "wasted" in sharing spontaneous conversations that previous passionating tasks would have induced.

Thank you for your provoking post.

Thanks Skip and Ines for your comments. Ines, I completely agree with you that appealing to our inner values inspires free decisions and courageous action, although as you point out, the challenge lies in being able to keep reminding ourselves of those values. The school you describe is a learning place that I think we all need, whether or not we are actually in school. It's the space that we need to create for ourselves and for all learners.

I've come to believe that my role in learning is much less about "instruction" and much more about creating the right environment and space for learning. I have to say that Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed has also been incredibly inspiring to me in pointing out how our "banking system" of education (which continues in the workplace) creates and reinforces a system of oppression. It's some radical stuff, but I think that we need to start exploring more radical ideas.

Love this post-thanks a lot. Again, ties in with everything I am thinking about.

Also worth reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance - where the impact of removing grades from education had some really interesting impacts!

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