All Articles Leadership Management Why tokens are the wrong incentive for workplace problems

Why tokens are the wrong incentive for workplace problems

Motivating people isn't as simple as giving tokens and other rewards. In fact, you might be incentivizing the wrong things.

6 min read


Image that says "Stop With The Tokens, Please!"

Susan Fowler

I’m enthralled with a high-tech meditation headband that measures five different brainwaves while I meditate — providing me with real-time biofeedback on the effectiveness of my effort. The accompanying app plays a raging storm with wind gusts and pelting rain.

The more deeply I meditate, the calmer the storm becomes until, in the silence, I hear birds chirping — a clear indication that I’m doing something right. Amazing, right?

After the session, I check my progress. Guess what I find? Tokens! I created nine chirping birds and earned tokens. I meditated for two hours this week, and all those tokens earned me a badge. I can share and compare my results with others. Oh boy!

As much as I revel in the technology, I’m insulted by the company’s belief that I need to be incentivized and rewarded for doing what I bought the product to help me do: Develop mindfulness through meditation.

During my second meditation, I discovered myself pushing to make the birds chirp, which, ironically, elevated the storm’s ferocity. Now have to consciously ignore the pressure to hear the birds and remember that tokens can’t buy me mindfulness.

What is more antithetical to developing mindfulness through meditation than setting up the potential for judgment by sharing my results with others and feeling the pressure to hear birds chirp so I can earn tokens?

To my chagrin, tokens and similar gamification rewards are now rampant in the workplace, too. Organizations incentivize everything imaginable by issuing tokens that can buy you anything but love.

Like it or not, the token phenomenon is here. But before I succumb to the inevitability of tokens infiltrating every level of our working life, I plead with you to consider the potential consequences and downside of token mania.

If you’ve thrown tokens at a situation or are about to, will you take a moment to answer the ultimate question: Why?

If your answer falls into one of three categories, perhaps you’ll rethink the token and try an alternative approach.

Tokens out of fear

During the past 15 months of the pandemic, people read the company president’s weekly reports describing their situation and decision-making rationale. People raved about his transparency, sensitivity and vulnerability.

Then he announced he would begin rewarding people with tokens for reading his weekly messages. So why the need to offer an external reward for something people had already been optimally motivated to do?

Maybe he was afraid people would lose interest now that the pandemic was easing. Perhaps he feared losing the accolades. Did he hope incentives would allay his fears?

But what if he’d asked people to reflect on the role his posts played during the pandemic? What if he sparked curiosity about the value they might find in his future reports? What if he’d encouraged people’s optimal motivation instead of reverting to promoting suboptimal motivation through external rewards to generate the behavior he desired?

If the company president discovers that people aren’t reading the posts, maybe his efforts aren’t hitting the mark. He might learn that he’s been ineffective at adapting his message for the post-pandemic workplace. Whatever the reason for people’s disinterest in his reports, the burden falls on him to communicate in a compelling way that justifies people’s time and effort.

I’ve heard the counterargument that the incentives must work if people are earning tokens. But how do you answer these two questions:

  • Are people reading his message with intent and interest?
  • Or are they pretending to read it so they can earn tokens?

Research proves that the answer to the first question is often no; the answer to the second question is often yes.

Employees with tokens around them
SmartBrief illustration

Tokens as a sign of laziness

The head of leadership development touted his company’s token-earning approach to incentivize people to complete training sessions. I asked him why he felt the need to reward people for learning. He explained that the information was inherently dull. Giving people tokens would make the pain more bearable.

What if he had applied critical thinking before resorting to his reward system by asking:

  • Is the information relevant to the quality of people’s work lives?
  • Will the information help improve people’s effectiveness, productivity and success?

If not, then what’s the purpose of the training? If yes, then why not put effort into making the training compelling? Why not help people understand the value of what they’re learning, so they appreciate the time and effort required?

Before defaulting to incentives for motivating people to do something boring, routine, or meaningless, ask why — why isn’t it worth investing your time to make the experience worthwhile and compelling?

Maybe everyone’s wasting their time. But if you conclude that sharing information or encouraging people to complete a training session is worth it, don’t take the lazy way out.

Tokens because of misunderstanding

The nature of human motivation may be different than you’ve been led to believe. The truth is, we enjoy learning. We want to contribute. We are willing to go through hell if we find meaning and purpose in the process.

But if you believe the best way to motivate people to learn, contribute or work hard toward a common goal is to incentivize or reward them with tokens, maybe it’s time to investigate your beliefs about human nature. You may discover that people want to succeed even more than you want them to.

If you are operating on outdated approaches to motivation, try focusing on helping people discover their own meaningful reasons to pursue and accomplish what is being asked of them.

When it comes to people’s motivation, what matters most is the reason for their motivation. Tokens are a shiny distraction to people discovering more fulfilling reasons for doing what you’re asking them to do.

If you depend on tokens to motivate behavior without appreciating the implications of suboptimal versus optimal motivation, you could be undermining the sustainable and positive energy you hoped to generate.

Susan Fowler is the bestselling author of “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing.” In her latest book, “Master Your Motivation: Three Scientific Truths for Achieving Your Goals,” she presents an evolutionary idea: motivation is a skill. Providing real-world examples and empirical evidence, Fowler teaches you how to achieve your goals and flourish as you succeed. She is also the author of bylined articles, peer-reviewed research, and eight books, including the best-selling “Self Leadership and The One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs. For more information and the free What’s Your MO? survey for exploring your motivational outlook, visit

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mails on leadershipcareer development, and HR, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.