Press "Enter" to skip to content

Pink on Motivation: Bonuses Don’t Work for Knowledge Workers

The Yankton brain trust is all about Daniel Pink's well-researched argument that rewards don't motivate performance. LK refers to Pink in my comment section. Nathan Johnson links to this animation of Daniel Pink's lecture on the failure of merit bonuses to drive better results. Governor Daugaard, pay attention:

Pink discusses an experiment done at MIT on bonuses and performance. Researchers found that bonuses did motivate better performance in purely mechanical tasks. However, when tasks involved even rudimentary cognitive skills, bonuses led to worse performance. Concerned that small cash bonuses might not be sufficiently motivational among well-to-do MIT students, researchers conducted a similar experiment in India, where the bonuses were the equivalent of two weeks' to two months' salary (a range in which Governor Daugaard's $5,000 merit bonuses fall). The results in India were similar: individuals receiving medium-sized rewards didn't perform any better than folks receiving small rewards, while the folks getting the highest rewards performed worse.

I know our Governor doesn't believe in empirical research, but Pink says these results have been replicated over and over: For simple tasks, bonuses work. For complicated tasks requiring conceptual and creative thinking (welcome to my day), bonuses don't work. Pink says you get better performance by paying everyone enough to take their minds off money. Governor Daugaard's plan is all about focusing everyone's attention on a competition for money. Oops.

Pink also says the three keys to motivation are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. I'm not sure what the Governor's plan does to encourage mastery, but his state-mandated uniform evaluations certainly don't encourage autonomy. And his bonuses make us think the purpose of showing up for work is competing to beat our neighbor for cash. Again, oops.


  1. David Newquist 2012.01.16

    In 40 years of dabbling with merit schemes in education, our own academic literature has resulted in these same conclusions. Merit pay doesn't work where intelligence and talent are involved. It only works on the level of Pavlov's dog. Master teachers know that and have written about it from experience and experiments. The people who devise these schemes are those with no experience in classrooms or any other place, such as orchestras, research teams, etc., where intellect and talent is involved. And no intellectual ability to conceive of situations that differ from rewarding the sales person who sells the most vacuum cleaners or encyclopedias. Yet these are the people who are most vocal and who are listened to on the subject of education. That is why it continues to decline.

    In 30 years of studies citing the problems in education, beginning with Nation At Risk in the 1980s, no one has bothered to listen to the master teachers. What could they possibly know?

  2. Roger Elgersma 2012.01.16

    So why does not Daugaard propose a raise in pay for those weilders he wants to move here. People not moving here very fast could be thought of at the same time as teacher pay.I think that is called, 'lookingat the big picture.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.01.16

    "looking at the big picture"—you're right, Roger: the Daugaard Administration seems to be doing a very bad job of that in its "SD WINS" proposal.

  4. Michael Black 2012.01.16

    I've listened to his speech before on a TED video.

    Seems like we might be wasting money and getting lower returns if we do what the governor wants.

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2012.01.17

    That's it in a nutshell, Mike. Tell your fellow voters, and call your legislators!

  6. Troy Jones 2012.01.17

    I'm reminded by reading this group think going on here over this issue of something an English teacher from high school once said (paraphrasing): If you want to learn and understand, read and absorb those who you disagree with and compare it to what you knew before. If what you read only reinforces what you believed before, you become ignorant.

    Pay for performance/bonuses are components of a total system to do two things:

    1) Change the culture/focus/results. These things get changed overtime by essentially two "instruments." Punishment/reprimand/corrective action etc. is "negative" reinforcement. Excessive reliance on negative reinforcement has a long-term consequence of making people risk-averse and seldom encourages innovation. Bonuses/recognition/benefits is "positive" reinforcement. SOLE relience on "positive" reinforcement has the consequence of breeding some of the problems articulated by the opponents to the Governor's plan.

    2) Enhance the tool set available to those responsible for overall performance (administrators and school boards) to get desired results.

    This is my beef with Pink's analysis. It looked at pay for performance as a single input for change. If this is the only "tool", it will be minimally effective in the short-term and probably ineffective long-term. The Governor's plan is both negative reinforcement (losing tenure) and positive reinforcement (bonus). But, even then, it isn't the total tool set available to administration. It is addition to what is currently available.

    Furthermore, the criticism of the criteria is short-sighted. Institution of performance plans necessarily overly-reliant on objective measures (testing) but good management practices will reform it over time to increase the subjective measures (teamwork, etc.). This is part of the process.

    Long-term I'd like to see bonuses consider long-term results. A couple of ways could be things like:

    1) Test/measure a 9th graders proficiency of various subjects. If, for instance, this 9th grader reads at 5th grade level and has no inherent disability, those who taught this student in prior grades would get a negative mark. On the other hand, if this same student has excellence in math, the prior math teachers would get a positive mark. These overtime positive and negative marks would be used to as a component to future bonuses.

    2) Incorporate extra-classroom projects into the evaluation. For instance, a teacher who agrees to mentor new teachers in a specific way or participate in "reform" matter should be factored into how they are building the total organization.

    Reform of the culture/performance is demanded by the stakeholders. It requires trying different options and a constant "tweaking" as effectiveness and non-effectiveness becomes apparent.

  7. Erin 2012.01.17

    And as alluded to in a statement above, we are right back to Pavlov's dog and behavioral conditioning and modification as the means to control the subjects. As behavioral conditioning was/is the official psychological theory of Soviet Marxism and it did not work there, why is it the preferred approach here? Pink's study is one of many refutations of the validity of behaviorism and its brain-washing process to modify, control, and determine personality and character. There are many who object morally to the prospect, even if it does work. The Pink study concludes that original human volition must be the factor that motivates high standards of performance.

    But I am one of those who has had the courses in learning theory and have spent some time trying to apply it in classrooms and I suppose that qualifies me only to be a subject for modification.

  8. Troy Jones 2012.01.17


    If your understanding of performance rewards is it is Pavlovian, you have such a limited understanding of this subject as to be wholly ignorant.

    Read again my first paragraph above. Study the matter from a new perspective (those who advocate something contrary to your view). If you had, while you could still disagree with whether these bonuses will be worth the cost, you would not make such an ignorant statement.

    And, if you are really a teacher and this is both the depth and manner of learning/understanding and expectations for students who I want to know how to think, the need for fundamental change and the Governor's plan couldn't have been made more clearly.

  9. Erin F 2012.01.17

    Positive and negative reinforcement are behaviorist terms employed by John Watson and B.F. Skinner in explaining their theory of human development. If you use behaviorist terms and your description of rewards and punishments is that laid out by the behaviorists, it seems like you are applying a behaviorist concept.

    I regret that my comments rang your insult-and-abuse bell.

  10. LK 2012.01.17


    Given that many other states with Republican governors have proposed similar plans, there's enough group think to go around. Also, I tend to believe that my job should involve both getting a student ready for employment and using literature to deal with personal dilemmas like a college friend dying on Christmas. The reformers seem to universally disagree with me about in a manner that indicates group think.

    Granted, school cultures need to change; removing tenure and paying math and science teachers more than anyone else in the building doesn't change the problems that I see every day. The latter certainly exacerbates some of them. The former limits the incentive to offer criticism of the status quo. I really want to see these onerous protections for long term teachers that predicate the desire to end tenure. I look at our policy manual and I don't see these protections. Most people in my district basically live with a bunker mentality with "tenure." I expect more fox holes to be dug if it's eliminated.

    You have said that teachers are not the only stakeholders. I agree, but they seem to be the only stakeholders ignored in this process. I don't think any of them were invited to any meetings when this plan was formed.

    I keep seeing all of the things that you would like to see long term. If you have the Governor's ear and he's promised that these things will happen, perhaps, and I emphasize the conditionality inerhent in that word, some of the worst harms his proposal will produce may be mitigated eventually. I have no faith that any of the the long term things you suggest, some that I sort of agree with in general, will ever happen and we will be stuck with the worst aspects of a bad plan.

    Faith is the substance of things unseen the evidence of things hoped for. I need the evidence that these things have worked in education elsewhere. I have no faith in Governor Daugaard or the business model for education. If the business model for motivation worked so well, far more businesses should succeed.

Comments are closed.