You are probably not surprised to learn that school attendance is closely tied to academic performance. The old adage of "what gets measured gets managed" has lead administrators in school and business to provide awards and certificates of achievement for things like attendance to increase performance. 

Most of us probably received at least one award for perfect attendance, right?

It seems logical enough--even the Harvard researchers predicted that providing attendance awards would motivate students more than not receiving an award. Unfortunately, their findings contradicted expectations (and the common actions taken by most schools and businesses). 

School Attendance Study

In May 2019, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes published a paper from a Harvard PhD candidate and her research team titled, "The Demotivating Effect (And Unintended Message) Of Awards." The study included 15,329 students and used a symbolic award for perfect attendance to motivate the kids to come to school every day.

Students were randomly split into three groups: control, retrospective (you won an unexpected award for perfect attendance in a previous month, and prospective (you can win an award if you have perfect attendance next month--February). 

The researchers predicted that the two groups receiving the awards would have better attendance than those in the control group in the following month, and that the group encouraged to win an upcoming award would have the best performance. This correlated with the predictions of the administrators--only two percent predicted the awards would have a demotivating effect. 

Unintended Result: Demotivation

As it turns out, the students who received the retrospective letter (saying they had won an award previously and it was the only time awards would be sent that year) had worse attendance than the other students. And, both groups had worse attendance in March than the rest of the year, potentially because they knew it would no longer be tracked. 

There are three main reasons for this: 

  1. The recipient may be led to believe their behavior is outside the norm (even though the award is on individual and not relative achievement).
  2. The award may signify that the recipient has exceeded the expectations of the institution.
  3. The award may single out an individual and have an unintended social cost.

These results are actually consistent with previous behavioral economics studies into social norms and unintended boomerang effects that can occur when someone is praised for their behavior. 

For example, an energy company may choose to send out letters to households to let them know how they are doing compared with their neighbors. They likely expect those who are in the top category (using the least amount of energy) will feel proud and continue to behave the same or better. In reality, many of them start to slack off and use more energy than before, because they believe they are doing more than is expected or required.

The Awards Trap

What does all this mean for your business? Motivation is not as easy as sending out awards, and while surprising customers can lead to increased loyalty, when done incorrectly it can decrease motivation for employees. 

When you are considering items to track in your business, do not get caught up in the awards trap. Instead, consider the reason people do the things they do, and what an award may say that is out of alignment with real expectations. 

For the school, an award for perfect attendance made the students believe they were doing more than what was expected of them--essentially encouraging them to slack off. 

For your employees, do you have awards for sales goals or customer satisfaction survey numbers that could be causing the opposite actions from what you are intending? 

Consider customer satisfaction surveys, which are intended to encourage employees to provide stellar service. However, when the end number is all that is measured, employees begin to adapt their behavior with the sole intention of getting a 10 out of 10 on a survey. Many flat out ask customers to give them a 10--instead of actually providing service that would encourage the score.