Robinson, Carly D., Jana Gallus, Monica G. Lee, and Todd Rogers. "The Demotivating Effect (and Unintended Message) of Retrospective Awards." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP18-020, July 2018.

Abstract

It is common for organizations to offer awards to motivate individual behavior, yet few empirical studies evaluate their effectiveness in the field. We report a randomized field experiment (N = 15,329) that tests the impact of two types of symbolic awards on student attendance: pre-announced awards (prospective) and surprise awards (retrospective). Contrary to our pre-registered hypotheses, prospective awards had no impact while the retrospective awards decreased subsequent attendance. Survey studies provide evidence suggesting that receiving retrospective awards may demotivate the behavior being awarded by inadvertently signaling (a) that recipients have performed the behavior more than their peers have; and (b) that recipients have performed the behavior to a greater degree than was organizationally expected. A school leaders survey shows that awards for attendance are common, and that the organizational leaders who offer these awards are unaware of their potential demotivating impact.