By Patrick Cisler

Forty years ago, a study was done at General Electric on their “Performance Appraisal System” to measure the benefits of managers’ praise and criticism towards employees. GE had incorporated this performance management system based on a commonly held belief that employees need to hear objective feedback on their performance, and that in doing so, it will lead to improvement. In fact, this generally held belief translates into how parents interact with their children as well as the popular system of grades in our school system. However, what GE came to learn was that managerial feedback was not helpful and, in fact, was often harmful to employees’ performance.

The results of this study were not a surprise to one man, Leon Festinger, a social psychologist who had done studies a decade earlier on punishment and reward and came to find very similar results. Without going into great detail, what Festinger found, and what other psychologists would later discover, is that intrinsic motivation far exceeds extrinsic motivation. In fact, extrinsic motivation often can be to the detriment of intrinsic motivation. People work best when they understand the meaning of their work and have an internal desire to succeed in that work. When it comes to evaluation, a system of self-evaluation has the greatest success rather than a manager or superior sitting down and grading employees. Yet, here we are again, at the end of the year, and I find employers scheduling meetings to discuss each employee’s past year’s performance. As I was reading about these studies in the book Management Rewired by Charles S. Jacobs, I found myself not surprised but rather in quite familiar territory.

You see, I live in a household where these principles are practiced daily. I am not trying to boast, and in fact, none if this practice comes from me but rather my wife (a Montessori teacher at a local charter school). Principles such as self-evaluation and withholding of praise and criticism are common practices in her classroom, and therefore, also in our house. Her students hold their own conferences and have monthly student self-evaluations. This translates at our house when I come to my wife seeking praise, and she responds with, “How do you feel about it?”

Maria Montessori (founder of the education method), Alfie Kohn, John Dewey Leon Festinger, and Charles S. Jacobs are just a few who have understood these principles and have been proponents for change in both schools and the workplace. The studies are out there for both students and employees yet we remain convinced that with proper feedback and a good system of extrinsic rewards and punishments, we as managers of others can and will improve behavior.

I admit that much of this goes against conventional wisdom and isn’t easy to implement. A classroom, maybe. But a corporation? It can work if done correctly, and I encourage managers to consider ways to accomplish this. Find out what motivates your employees, and set up a system for self-evaluation. I will never forget my first week at Whittaker Associates when I was asked a question I had never heard before when discussing my job description: “What kind of work do you want to do?” What if we all took the time to establish intrinsic motivation in employees first and job responsibilities second?