John Watson is known as the father of Behaviorism because of a series of lectures he gave at Columbia University in 1912. His greatest contribution, besides coining the name, may have been to have written the book, Behaviorism, that prompted Burrhus Frederic Skinner to become a psychologist. It was B. F. Skinner, in his lab filled with rats and pigeons, that made behaviorism the de facto standard for getting people to do what you want in America. It’s so pervasive that we don’t even question it. There are probably more Americans who question the existence of God than who would challenge the notion that rewards beget behaviors. We use it in child rearing, in teaching, in the workplace, and yes, even in the bedroom. This insidious form of bribery is so common that we believe it is the only way to motivate others — we even believe that it’s the only way to motivate ourselves.
In the early 90s, Alfie Kohn wrote a book called Punished by Rewards. In it, he raises significant issue with this commonly held notion of operant behavior. Yet here we are, more than a decade later, giving gold stars for attendance in school, and electronics for bringing home good grades, and bonuses for good work. We don’t have an alternative so we keep doing what doesn’t seem to work over the long haul.
I’m spending a lot of time trying to figure out how to build a really successful and non-dysfunctional organization. I hope it to be my legacy to the workplace. Everywhere I turn, I find people continuing to do things that they have never seen work successfully because that’s easier than trying something new. Is anybody trying something different? At this point it doesn’t even have to be better, just no worse. At least you’ll benefit from some Hawthorne effect.