A personal reflection on “Incentives” and Peformance

When I was in high school and college, I had a number of summer and part-time jobs in retail, beginning as a “fitting room” attendant, then cashier, then sales. One summer, when I was working at Ann Taylor, I participated in a program in which I could earn incentive pay on top of my regular hourly rate. All I had to do was open Ann Taylor credit card accounts for as many people as possible. So I was diligent in asking every customer if she wanted to open an account. I soon realized that store customers weren’t going to help me really earn the incentive pay. I began calling friends during slack times to encourage them to open accounts. I started carrying credit card applications with me wherever I went. It got to the point where I could barely begin conversations with others without asking if they had or wanted an Ann Taylor charge card. And consequently, I earned a nice incentive bonus in one of my checks.

But while I don’t remember how much the bonus was or what I did with the bonus, I do remember that after earning that one big bump in wages, I stopped opening charge accounts. I can remember thinking at the time that I’d burned through all of my friends and had few others to tap for applications and that the incentive, while nice, really hadn’t been equal to the effort. But while the incentive program remained in place, my active participation in it was lackluster at best after receiving the first reward.

I never thought much about that program, my participation, or why I’d stopped my credit card selling frenzy until I started reading Daniel Pink’s Drive. But it is clear to me that Pink’s analysis of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation explains my behaviors on that job. During the first month I was selling the credit cards, earning the incentive was a kind of game for me. It was fun convincing others to apply for credit cards and to pursue the reward. But, just as Pink suggests, once given the reward, I had little incentive to continue to play for “more of the same” reward. In my mind, I’d won the game, so “game over.” And now I’m thinking about whether we encourage this same kind of thinking in schools with grades, or privileges, or other “rewards” for performance.

I’m considering the implications of Pink’s argument for schools, in thinking about school leaders can encourage love of learning for its own sake. I’m wondering about the role of incentive rewards in schools: when they are useful tools when we are focused on a short term goal, and when they cause damage to our students’ long term enjoyment of intellectual engagement.

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