Workplace Rewards for a Well-behaved Culture – it doesn’t work!

Workplace Rewards for a Well-behaved Culture - it doesn’t work!

A conversation about rewards charts began in our house recently, and while the intention from my partner to stimulate this method of parenting was well-meaning, unfortunately, he lives with me, which means he had to listen to me waffle on about the potential problems that this may cause further down the line. In fact my first words to him were something along the lines of; 

“Oh no, we’re not doing a rewards chart. I spend every day telling people why not to use them at work. This is where it starts!” 

I’m fully aware that this is a problem all of us have, not just in parenting, but at work as well. We want to reward good behaviour. Because for a long time, and still to this day, many believe that if we reward good behaviour, it changes behaviour. 

The system of reward begins early if we use it as parents, and then unfortunately most of the time this same broken system appears at school, and then eventually in the workplace. 

But this outdated and simplistic approach to rewarding behaviour becomes a barrier later on in life, meaning we miss out on learning life-long skills. Reward incentives may start out with the best intention, but they are flawed in many ways. 

As a culture coach, I’m approached by companies on a daily basis who believe in incentivising and rewarding people as if they were well-behaved children, but yet these crazy rewards have done nothing for the success of their company, or the development of people’s true potential. In most cases they have an eye-watering array of rewards, but the team is not any more engaged in their work. They change the rewards, they get bigger rewards. And still the same problems arise. 

At times, much of my work as a culture coach feels like unravelling all this conditioning we’ve been given in our childhood and education, and relearning better ways of working together. Fuelling motivation that doesn’t come from an extrinsic reward. 

If, like my partner, you’re wondering how these dots connect, I thought I’d share why this approach to rewards doesn’t work, and how it links from parenthood to workplace culture. You will quickly see how all too familiar children’s reward experiences are replicated in the workplace. And yes, it is as depressing as it sounds that we are treating adults like children in a work environment. 

Why reward charts don't work?

To begin with, let’s focus on why rewards and activities such as rewards charts don’t work for children. 

Rewards increase extrinsic motivation. In order to receive a reward, the child has to do a task or behave in a certain way, and then they receive a reward of some kind. Sometimes this is a sticker, sometimes it might be sweets. It doesn’t matter. The point here is they are complying to gain something outside of themselves (external). 

While rewarding behaviour in this way works quickly. (We’ve all seen how fast a child can get moving when the word ‘sweets’ is mentioned); the effects are short-lived and superficial. 

And let’s be honest. It doesn’t last. In some instances the child doesn’t comply, because they don’t care for the carrot you’ve dangled in front of them. And in other cases, as they begin to get older, they want bigger or more extravagant rewards. More frustratingly, they may begin to not help in everyday household activities without feeling entitled to a reward. It’s the old ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude. 

Even research by the Journal of Developmental Psychology has shown that rewards do not change motivation at all; the child is just complying to receive something. The child isn’t learning “right from wrong”, or becoming a better person, they are just doing it because they know a reward is available to them. 

By focusing on extrinsic rewards, we are also beginning to generate a “transactional mindset” instead of a relational one. We are conditioning the child to expect a reward for their efforts, and even more detrimental, we’re preventing the child from experiencing intrinsic motivation. 

Rewards undermine intrinsic motivation, and for real change to take place we have to work with intrinsic motivation. We want children to do the right thing because it feels satisfying to them. 

Rewards in the workplace - same pig, but with lipstick

Unfortunately, I’d love to say that rewards in this way stops at school, but it repeats itself in the workplace, but just under a slightly different disguise. 

Companies act like parents, they believe that people will only do the right thing if they’re rewarded. 

With this mindset fixed in place companies assume negative intent with their teams, and create rewards to incentivise behaviour and performance. Everything and anything will be rewarded as long as it’s inline with what the company deems ‘right’. 

Alongside the rewards though they also have punishments. These punishments may not always be obvious, they may even be just subtle enough to keep you compliant. For example scoring slightly lower on your annual appraisal which means you don’t get the bonus you were hoping for, but your other team members still get their bonus.

It sounds like school, but the horrifying fact is – this is work! 

To make it clear, here are a handful of similarities between childrens rewards and rewards at work; 

  • Behaviour management tied to a system of rewards and punishments 
  • Extrinsic rewards only 
  • Represents that mistakes are unsafe
  • Creates a culture of separation, competitiveness and resentment

So how do we encourage ‘good behaviour’?

If you’re a HR lead or a team manager, you might be thinking, “this makes sense, but then how do I motivate people? Or how do I influence people to change their behaviour?” 

No matter which way you word it, what you’re saying is that you want to manipulate or control people’s behaviour. Well, I have bad news for you, you can’t control people. And that isn’t me being fluffy and saying you ‘shouldn’t; I’m telling you as a fact, you can’t control people. You also can’t change people – that has to come from their own desire. 

Behaviour – be it in an adult or a child, is a symptom. They are behaving that way because of something else.  

Besides, it’s being rewarded (or bribed) such a transparent transaction. Think about it. You know when you’re being played, or manipulated, does it feel good? Does it motivate you? – In most cases it annoys us, or even worse disengages us because we feel like we’re being treated like children.  

If you’re adamant about keeping your rewards program, the best you can hope for is temporary compliance. The change might happen for a while, but it won’t be a long-term change. 

However, if these facts have left you a bit sick in the stomach at the realisation of how outdated and juvenile rewards can be, here’s where you need to focus first – intrinsic motivation. 

Intrinsic motivation comes from our inner desire to do something because we enjoy the satisfaction of it, or simply have an inner willingness to do better. When we are intrinsically motivated, we’re moved to act for the fun or challenge of it, rather than because of external rewards or punishments. By empowering intrinsic motivation, we foster a greater workplace culture where people want to do better, and fulfil their potential regardless of the lure of a reward. 

Now we know work isn’t always fun, but job satisfaction plays a huge role in our ability to feel intrinsically motivated. If we’re going to help people feel motivated, they actually have to like what they’re doing. For some people, they may love their work, but get frustrated with other things in the company culture which causes tension. This can include being micro-managed or having to deal with office politics. The job itself might not be the problem, it could be the culture. 

How to increase intrinsic motivation at work

Intrinsic motivation stems from self-determination theory which represents a broad framework for the study of human motivation and behaviour. The theory argues that there needs to be conditions present to support intrinsic motivation, and these are areas which we can facilitate in the workplace. 

When these key areas are present, we create a culture where people are naturally motivated to do their best work. Here’s what these areas are and why they are important;


We have to know what we are working towards in the first place. There has to be a goal in mind that we can work towards that makes us feel challenged. If we don’t know what we’re working towards, work can feel pointless, and we lose our motivation. 

Does your team know the goal you’re trying to achieve? 


We have to feel like we are good at what we do and that we’re effective. This doesn’t mean we find it easy. It’s a deep sense as an individual that we are good at our work and make an effective contribution. 

How competent do your team feel?


We have to feel like we are good at what we do and that we’re effective. This doesn’t mean we find it easy. It’s a deep sense as an individual that we are good at our work and make an effective contribution. 

How competent do your team feel?


People need freedom and responsibility over their work in order to feel a sense of ownership. When people feel in control of their own work, they feel more satisfied at what they have created. 

Does your team have true autonomy to choose how and when they work? 

And as for rewards

I’m not saying ALL rewards are bad, it’s just the way we do them at work is often broken. 

We should always begin with creating a culture that boosts intrinsic motivation, and then focus on external rewards collaboratively. 

External rewards should then be co-created with your team. This should be explored so that you’re creating powerful programs together that make a difference to everyone. For example, your teams may even come up with different rewards depending on their role function, or a reward if the company does well. 

If anything should be externally rewarded, it’s people’s efforts, not their compliant behaviour. 

Ditching old ways of working isn’t easy, so if you’re eager to be more progressive with your company culture get in touch to see how I can support you in finding the path to your next evolution. 

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    About The Author

    Lizzie Benton is a people and culture specialist who supports organisations in developing a unique company culture and building engaged teams. Lizzie has been recognised as a millennial changing the world of work, and has been featured in the Metro, HuffingtonPost and has spoken across the UK on employee engagement. When not consulting or running a workshop, Lizzie can be found in rural Lincolnshire enjoying afternoon tea and fresh air.