Rewarding your own learning

Albert Einstein tellingly pointed out the dangers of rewards when he said, "Our theories determine what we measure." In other words, we only reward or value what our theories tell us are important. In the business arena, this means that MBAs and professional qualifications are rewarded, while learning about social or emotional intelligence is much less valued.

Few organizations have yet realized that if they want adaptable, flexible employees, they should have reward systems that value those who display these attributes or who can learn effectively.

In too many businesses, learning to learn is not rewarded. Yet, if learning is the single most potent form of sustainable competitive advantage in the Knowledge Age, it is surely what should be being measured and rewarded. A few businesses have begun to appreciate that this is the way forward. In the 1990s, there was some particularly exciting work led by companies like Skandia in Sweden. To accompany its traditional annual reports, Skandia produces a detailed analysis of its intangible assets, the value of its people, the company's reputation, and its customer and supplier networks. An analysis like this examines and puts a value on the kinds of things that learning brings to a business: the knowledge of its customer base and its potential, the capability for innovation and creativity within the organization, and its human capital—the levels of competence and potential of the Skandia workforce.

Another Swedish company, Celemi, has gone a stage further and produced a useful tool to help companies work out their own human capital value, the Celemi Intangible Assets Monitor. Celemi puts this into practice in its own business, reporting on progress as part of its annual accounts. Central to its thinking is the idea that people learn by undertaking challenging projects and that this growth in capacity or intelligence or competence to learn should be recognized.

How to reward yourself

At a personal level, the issue of rewards is complex. Most theorists focus on the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards for learning. An example of an intrinsic reward is the pleasure it might give you to learn a musical instrument or the good feelings created when you learn how to control your anger. An example of an extrinsic reward would be your child being given a sweet after they have finished their homework or you receiving a degree in return for years of study. The general view is that for learning to be really successful, the learner has to be intrinsically motivated, although it is clear that having external positive feedback is also bound to be helpful.

One of the best-known thinkers in this area of motivation is Frederick Herzberg. Writing in the 1960s about attitudes to work, he established a helpful distinction between hygiene factors and satisfiers. If you think of this in terms of food, Herzberg's distinction becomes clearer. Food may be carefully prepared and technically safe to eat. These are hygiene factors. Alternatively, it can be deliciously tasty, from an organic source, and very nutritious. These would be satisfiers. Herzberg showed how the analogy holds good for motivation at work.

However, the real value of Herzberg's approach lies in his development of the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. He points out that the opposite of being demotivated is not being motivated, it is not being demotivated. You can minimize the dissatisfaction by creating hygiene factors, but you need things that will really satisfy a learner to make them motivated. You can see this expressed below:

Switched off from learning ^ ^ Not switched off from learning

Not switched off from learning ^ ^ Switched on to learning

If you stop being switched off from learning, it just means that you stop being against it. It doesn't mean that you are for it! Many people who go on training courses at work reluctantly get themselves into a position of being not switched off, but they don't go further and become switched on to the learning they are being offered.

Once you understand this strange kind of layering of oppo-sites, you are much better equipped to motivate yourself and others to learn. You need to be really "satisfied" if you are going to be switched on and, therefore, powered up to learn.

Sometimes external rewards can even work against you. For example, it has been found that if you are trying to encourage children to read, rewarding them for the number of books they read may in fact be counter-productive. Apparently, if you do this they will read a higher number of books at speed, but not enjoy, learn, or remember what they have read.

Nevertheless, most of us are able to work out how to administer treats as rewards when we have done something we have set our mind to. Such rewards might be going for a walk, a weekend break away, a meal out with our partner, or simple things such as a cup of coffee or a piece of chocolate (although for the effects of certain foods on your brain, don't forget what you read earlier!). But, remember this. If you come to depend on external rewards, what happens when you stop receiving them? Do you go on or do you grind to a halt because you lack the internal drive?

Think about the learning you have done in your life so far. How much of it was motivated by A extrinsic rewards and how much did you undertake because you wanted to do it for its own sake? Of the things you are currently thinking about learning, how many are you actively switched on to rather than not switched off from? What kind of rewards work best for you?

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