Positive Change Through Rewarding Virtue vs. Punishing Non-Compliance

Men have made millions of laws to punish crimes, and they have not established even one to reward virtue; Virtue being a product not of the command of law, but of our own free will, society has no right whatsoever over it. Virtue on no account enters into the social contract; and if it remains without reward, society commits an injustice similar to that of one who defrauds another of his labor.

Dragonetti (1766)

Moments of instability bear the opportunity for change, and leadership determines whether it be a breakdown or breakthrough [1]. Many institutional environments experience turning points through “critical actors” rather than through “critical masses” [2]. To gain acceptance for change, leaders use different types of power, e.g., coercion, punishment, reward, legitimation, and expert information [3]; [4]. In contrast, to incentivize change through fear, dissatisfaction, or guilt [5], reward power is to offer a positive motivation in case of compliance, e.g., an increase in salary, a career promotion, or other privileges [4]. In the study of coach-athlete relationships, rewards and not punitive methods have shown positive effects on the athletes’ behaviors [6].

Dragonetti, an old Neapolitan economist, more than 250 years ago stated that “Men have made millions of laws to punish crimes, and they have not established even one to reward virtue [7]” [8]. Indeed, a system more based on incentives, e.g., in the form of intrinsic societal awards, would foster more cooperation with economic and civic benefits [8]. This may be required today more than ever. Longitudinal research found that as a result of modernization and westernization, mothers in San Vicente, Mexico, developed more self-promoting behavior at the cost of a more giving and rewarding (e.g., including encouraging failures) attitude only forty years ago [9].

Monetary compensation, social status, or ideological values all may provide for reward [10]. Equating satisfaction with perception minus expectation, unexpected rewards can impact individuals’ satisfaction disproportionately and therefore, motivate change [11]. Contingent rewards have proven to be an effective change leadership tool. However, it was also found that rewards need to be specified according to the situation respectively to the field of interest [12]. Strategic alignment of changes and related rewards is essential to create clear psychological contracts that define well what contributions to company performance the employees owe their employer and what they can hope for in return [13]. Of course, it is foolish to incentivize something and expect something else in return [14].

Because not all change is of equal ease to everybody, change efforts rather than change expertise/effectiveness should be rewarded [15]. Not only reward size, but also the sequence and frequency of incentivizing are influencing the future expectancy of further rewards in social-change theories [16]. Age may also be a factor for reward-sensitivity, as, for example, adolescents with typically lower inhibitory control capability attribute more value to reward [17]. In conclusion, the focus on rewarding desired behavior rather than punishing unwanted conduct might have several advantages, such as creating positive feelings, increasing acceptance of positive change, and enabling higher likability of the influencing change agents [4].


[1] Goleman, D., Barlow, Z., & Bennett, L. (2010). Forging New Norms in New Orleans: From Emotional to Ecological Intelligence. Teacher Education Quarterly, 37(4), 87–98.

[2] Helitzer, D. L., Newbill, S. L., Cardinali, G., Morahan, P. S., Chang, S., & Magrane, D. (2017). Changing the Culture of Academic Medicine: Critical Mass or Critical Actors?. Journal Of Women’s Health (15409996), 26(5), 540. doi:10.1089/jwh.2016.6019

[3] Richardson, R. C., & Evans, E. T. (1997). Options for Managing Student Behavior: Adaptations for Individual Needs.

[4] Raven, B. (2008). The bases of power and the Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence. Analyses Of Social Issues & Public Policy, 8(1), 1–22.

[5] Schein, E. H. (2014). Organisational culture and leadership (4th ed.). John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

[6] Stenling, A. (2016). Sports coaches’ interpersonal motivating styles: longitudinal associations, change, and multidimensionality.

[7] Dragonetti, G. (1766) Delle virtu’ e dei premi, Napoli.

[8] Bruni, L., Panebianco, F., & Smerilli, A. (2014). Beyond Carrots and Sticks: How Cooperation and Its Rewards Evolve Together. Review Of Social Economy, 72(1), 55–82.

[9] Garcia, C., Greenfield, P. M., Montiel-Acevedo, D., Vidaña-Rivera, T., & Colorado, J. (2017). Implications of 43 Years of Sociodemographic Change in Mexico for the Socialization of Achievement Behavior: Two Quasi-Experiments. Journal Of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(4), 611–619. doi:10.1177/0022022117698573

[10] Van de Rijt, A., Kang, S. M., Restivo, M., & Patil, A. (2014). Field experiments of success-breeds-success dynamics. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 111(19), 6934–6939. doi:10.1073/pnas.1316836111

[11] Aiken, C., & Keller, S. (2009). The irrational side of change management. Mckinsey Quarterly, (2), 100–109.

[12] Richter, A., von Thiele Schwarz, U., Lornudd, C., Lundmark, R., Mosson, R., & Hasson, H. (2016). iLead-a transformational leadership intervention to train healthcare managers’ implementation leadership. Implementation Science, 111–13. doi:10.1186/s13012–016–0475–6

[13] McDermott, A. M., Conway, E., Rousseau, D. M., & Flood, P. C. (2013). Promoting Effective Psychological Contracts Through Leadership: The Missing Link Between HR Strategy and Performance. Human Resource Management, 52(2), 289. doi:10.1002/hrm.21529

[14] DuBois, C. Z., & Dubois, D. A. (2012). Strategic HRM as social design for environmental sustainability in organization. Human Resource Management, 51(6), 799. doi:10.1002/hrm.21504

[15] Cappelen, A. W., & Tungodden, B. (2003). Reward and Responsibility: How Should We Be Affected When Others Change Their Effort?. Politics, Philosophy And Economics, 2(2), 191–211.

[16] Lao, R. C., & Llorca, A. L. (1982). THE EFFECT OF SEQUENCE AND SIZE OF REWARD ON EXPECTANCY. Journal Of Social Psychology, 117(1), 93.

[17] Walker, D. M., Bell, M. R., Flores, C., Gulley, J. M., Willing, J., & Paul, M. J. (2017). Adolescence and Reward: Making Sense of Neural and Behavioral Changes Amid the Chaos. Journal Of Neuroscience, 37(45), 10855–10866.




Awareness Intelligence research and application since 1975. It’s humantime. www.mathias-sager.com, goodthings@mathias-sager.com. Thanks and all the best!

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Mathias Sager

Mathias Sager

Awareness Intelligence research and application since 1975. It’s humantime. www.mathias-sager.com, goodthings@mathias-sager.com. Thanks and all the best!

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