Business: Rethinking Management

We have been in prison from wrong teaching. By perceiving that cooperation is the answer,
not competition, Alfie Kohn opens a new world of living. I am deeply indebted to him.

— W. Edwards Deming

Alfie Kohn has been described as the country’s leading critic of competition, although he is quick to point out that there is not much competition for that title. His first book, NO CONTEST: The Case Against Competition, dealt with the destructive effects of win/lose arrangements at school, at home, at play – and also at work. He challenged the practice of pitting individuals against one another with the result that one can succeed only if others fail. And he showed how competitiveness and excellence tend to pull in opposite directions regardless of whether we’re talking about a classroom, an office, or an entire society.

Likewise, his fourth book, PUNISHED BY REWARDS: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, not only attracted the attention of teachers, parents, and psychologists, but became required reading in business schools and corporations across America for its provocative challenge to the conventional wisdom about motivation and compensation. (In fact, excerpts from PBR were published simultaneously in Parents magazine and the Harvard Business Review.)

While continuing to lecture to (and write for) educators, he began to speak about management issues – notably the folly of incentives, bonuses, and other techniques for “treating employees like pets” – at such organizations as AT&T, Dial, NASA, Pfizer, Mattel, BMW, and Exxon Chemical, in addition to keynoting many conferences on Quality management, organizational development, and health care. His work on competition and rewards in the workplace has been described and debated in such publications as CFO, the Journal of the American Compensation AssociationTrainingIncentive, the Journal for Quality and Participation, and on the front page of the Wall Street JournalFortune magazine has called him “America’s most biting critic of money as motivator.”

Among the articles written by Kohn – and interviews with him – on management topics:



  • “How Incentives Undermine Performance,” The Journal for Quality & Participation, March-April 1998
  • “Why Rewards Undermine Performance,” American Compensation Association Journal, Summer 1995
  • “Why Incentives Fail,” CFO magazine, September 1994
  • “Carrots, Sticks, and Self-Deception,” Across the Board, January 1994

Talks and Seminars

Finally, here are descriptions of the most popular of Kohn’s business-oriented talks. (He also leads occasional full-day seminars that combine the first two topics.)


Contrary to American myth, competition actually holds us back from doing our best work. The more an individual or organization is consumed with the struggle to be Number One, the less likely it is that quality can be sustained. Moreover, research and experience demonstrate that competition is both psychologically destructive and poisonous to our relationships. This presentation shows why any arrangement in which one person’s success depends on another’s failure is bound to be counterproductive. It also considers why cooperation is integral to success, how the idea of teamwork is often misunderstood, and what other ingredients are required for attaining quality in the workplace.


Most American executives are Skinnerians at heart, having accepted a carrot-and-stick model of motivation originally developed on laboratory animals. Extensive research shows, however, that rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin . . . and the coin doesn’t buy very much. In fact, incentive plans of any kind are likely to undermine quality, and the more closely pay is conditioned on performance, the more damage is done. Positive reinforcement amounts to “control by seduction,” and control is incompatible with intrinsic motivation and excellence. Kohn explains the implications of this critique in thinking about compensation systems, praise, and the encouragement of teamwork.

QUALITY AS DEMOCRACY: Toward a Participative Workplace

Many of the familiar principles of Quality management amount to an elaboration of this simple truth: An innovative, healthy organization requires that we work with people rather than doing things to them. The latter strategy is exemplified by rewards systems, performance appraisal, and competition — all symptoms of top-down control. By contrast, as Kohn explains, the logical conclusion of a “working with” approach to management extends beyond teamwork or empowerment. It requires the replacement of hierarchical systems with real participative democracy.