by Dean Witherspoon   Dean's profile on LinkedIn  

In The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace, author Ron Friedman reminds us that when work itself is rewarding, emphasis on external rewards actually reduces intrinsic motivation. And the greater the reward, the more damaging its impact. 

Some well-meaning, yet misguided benefit (and even wellness) professionals somehow believe the same principles don’t apply to behavior change. The apparent thinking is that this year’s premium discount or cash is enough of an enticement to change poor habits that may have been etched in an employee’s lifestyle for years, even decades. 

We’ve long argued that when you attempt to make behavior change an economic do this, get that transaction, you’re not only decreasing intrinsic motivation, but you’re robbing those you serve of autonomy in acting in their own best interest. According to Friedman… the value of autonomy is that it allows people to fully embrace their goals and see the investments they make as their own choice. It’s that feeling of personal ownership that inspires employees to be driven by their own interests, curiosity, and desires to succeed. If there’s anything in life that requires people to “fully embrace their goals,” it’s behavior change. 

But that’s not all. In some instances, it appears organizations are going out of their way to decrease intrinsic motivation. Here then are our top 6 demotivators:

  1. Cash incentives. 
  2. Premium discounts. Rewarding “healthy” people with decreased healthcare premiums for lower risk seems to make sense on the surface… unless you consider that 2 people living the exact same lifestyle can have completely different risks. And for those who could actually lower their risk through lifestyle changes, the threat of paying more than their coworker is clearly demotivating.
  3. Wellness programming centered on risks rather than interest and readiness. Almost no one believes they’re at risk regardless of your bar charts or risk scores.
  4. Unrealistic workloads. In many workplaces, when layoffs or natural attrition happens, those left are just expected to pick up the slack. It’s hard to get excited about your employer’s wellness offering when they’re oblivious to workloads. 
  5. The overly-quantified self. The obsession in some circles for tracking “verifiable” data through wrist-worn devices is beginning to create a backlash. What started out as a fun way to be accountable to yourself by tracking steps, exercise minutes, sleep, or other vitals has morphed into elaborate schemes to collect data and “reward” people for the desired behavior. 
  6. Winner-take-all. Some groups have replaced premium discounts and cash incentives with a competition model that rewards the best of the best, which is good for them but deflating for the other 99%. Alternatively, some organizations have switched to a “chance-to-win” model where meeting a minimum threshold puts you in a pool for the prize. This works pretty well for the first year, then it hits home that your chances of winning are almost nil.  

Take some time this week to examine your policies and practices. Are you fostering or inhibiting intrinsic motivation? 


# Anna Rose Robertson 2016-06-21 18:30
What are some ideas to increase intrinsic motivation?
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# Beth S 2016-06-23 20:32
Great question; the best thing employers can do is build a workplace culture that fosters intrinsic motivation... where people join wellness campaigns, go for lunchtime walks, or take 5 to meditate because they want to, not because they feel pressured to via a monetary incentive or penalty. Check out our previous post, How to Create an Environment Where Intrinsic Motivation Can Flourish for specific ideas. Our free white paper, How Financial Incentives/Disi ncentives Undermine Wellness - Making Wellness Rewarding Without Rewards is another great resource.
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# Jeff Haebig 2016-06-03 03:31
Excellent presentation of the research showing the negative effects of incentive rewards. Thank you. Jeff Haebig
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# Vince Taylor 2017-07-23 12:24
Quoting Jeff Haebig:
Excellent presentation of the research showing the negative effects of incentive rewards. Thank you. Jeff Haebig

What research was presented?
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