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Optimus Sourcing

Optimus Sourcing

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What is a bigger motivator – rewarding successes or punishing failures?


Our recent blog ‘What would be the one piece of advice you would give to yourself when you were 20 which you wish you had received’ looked at a LinkedIn discussion we started that recorded some fantastic answers. Another discussion we started called ‘What is a bigger motivator – rewarding successes or punishing failures?’ also attracted a lot of attention and here is a summary of the answers we got given from the L&D community.

Tailored Approach

This was the major answer to come out of the topic. It was mostly agreed upon by members of the discussion that people will react differently to each. One theory that arose was the idea that high achievers, whilst liking rewards were not motivated by them and were instead motivated by pressure. Low achievers however, reacted a lot better to rewards. The important thing however is that both are needed in life. One example given was that speed cameras punish you for breaking the speed limit rather than rewarding you for abiding by it. Negative reinforcement was referred to as the more powerful but less preferred method of the two.


Another theme to come out from the discussion was the idea of timing. Punishment was thought of as a good short term motivator when things needed to be done quickly whilst reward was thought of as better in the long term. This seems logical as employees working in a temporary job may not mind the ‘stick’ to motivate them but in a job they plan to stay in long term they are unlikely to stick around if constantly punished and not rewarded a ‘carrot’. In addition to this the idea of when you reward someone was brought up. An example of tipping a waiter at the beginning of a meal but reducing the tip for every mistake made was coined as an example of both reward and punishment.

Internal Motivation

Another theory that was well thought of was the idea of both punishment and reward being needed at the beginning. Whether this is a specific project, a single job or even the span of your career. However they should be thought of as just tools to get people to the point their motivation comes from within. ‘Drive’ by Dan Pink was heavily recommended and one of his motivators is ‘Mastery’. This is the idea that the best scenario is where an employee is enthusiastic to become the best at what they do and this drives them alone – the ‘Self-Actualisation’ level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

‘Mistake’ rather than ‘Failure’

The final mind-set many people in the discussion believed in was the idea of never using negative reinforcement as there is no such thing as a failure. The idea is to label them a mistake instead. From there you make sure the employee is aware of their mistake and talk it through with them in order for them to learn from it. Here, finding out the reason for the mistake is vital as often an external factor can be the reason (such as personal reasons) and once understood, can possibly be overcome. Therefore a reward isn’t always the best way but a punishment isn’t needed either. These people
thought that punishment was always bad due to the fact the very most it will do is get someone to the minimum required level to succeed but no further.

The response to the question was fantastic and obviously struck a chord with many of the people in the group. Many issues and theories were raised but the above 4 were the most suggested

Finally below are our 3 favourite quotes from the discussion – if you have an opinion on the subject please tell us!

Simon FriedIs an opportunity to get more of a motivator more effective than the fear of missing out on the said motivator? Psychology tells us that on average people fear loss more than they are attracted to an opportunity to gain. Too much fear however becomes counterproductive and demoralizing.

Larry Alvarado - You need both but need to learn how to use both and when one is better than the other and how to use both together. The ideal is internal motivation, but until we can get there with someone, rewards and punishments remain part of the tools

Tuhina BhattacharyaHorses for courses always. There are some who look hard within themselves and have others point flaws and gaps to get them ahead. There are some who thrive on praise and rewards. Then again, different situations will merit different handling.

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Optimus Sourcing

Marketing Executive

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