cassandra chambers


When non-monetary rewards have negative impacts

Why it matters:

Cassandra Chambers examined the behavior of contributors to a popular online computer programming community. Her finding could offer important insights for business leaders, particularly those managing a remote workforce.

From the crowdsourcing of inventions to the writing of reviews on Yelp, online communities have become the go-to source for knowledge exchange — an exchange dependent on individuals contributing their wisdom and insights. Many of these communities offer non-monetary rewards, in the form of badges, stars, or other forms of status, to motivate people to participate and share their knowledge.

“Although non-monetary reward systems are commonly used to promote contributions, we know relatively little about how these reward systems play out in the long term — especially in terms of negative impacts,” notes Cassandra Chambers, assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. “Could these systems be triggering counterproductive behaviors that threaten the collective’s shared goals?”

Bad behavior and ‘moral cleansing’

Chambers set out to address these questions with a study that examined the behavior of contributors to the popular online computer programming community, Stack Overflow, which has emerged as the day-to-day reference site for programmers.

She examined an eight-year period with over a million observations of site members’ weekly movements through Stack Overflow’s non-monetary reward system — which awards reputation points and “badges” — and over 3,000 incidents in which users were suspended.

“I found that as site members grew closer to a reward threshold, when performance pressure ramps up, there was as an association with an increased likelihood of being suspended for counterproductive behavior,” she says. Examples of bad behavior include “voting irregularities” — excessive “down voting” of a competitor’s contributions to elevate one’s own status.

Interestingly, during this period of counterproductive behavior, these individuals correspondingly stepped up their positive input to the online community, contributing at substantially higher rates in the period near their suspension, through what Chambers describes as a type of “moral cleansing.”

“It was as if they were proactively trying to offset their counterproductive behaviors,” observes Chambers, who holds a PhD from University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business and spent four years on the faculty of Bocconi University in Milan before joining the Carey Business School in 2022.

Also notable, Chambers says, is what happened in the period after community members were suspended. “I found that suspension was associated with a drop-off in future contributions, implying that people respond poorly to formal sanctions,” she says.

The value of non-monetary rewards

Chambers believes her findings, described in a working paper, could offer important insights for business leaders, particularly those managing a remote workforce.

Drawing a parallel to the knowledge-sharing practice of online communities, she notes that

in any successful business, it’s crucial for employees to support one another through the collaborative sharing of knowledge, support, and insights.

“These contributions are often informal and not required but they are ‘the secret sauce’ of flourishing organizations, leading to higher levels of creativity and efficiency, and lower levels of turnover,” she says.

Non-monetary rewards may be an effective way for business leaders to nurture and encourage this kind of collaborative behavior in remote working environments.

“Managers sometimes forget how powerful it can be to recognize your valued employees through non-monetary means. These kinds of rewards can affect employees in profound ways, so it’s worthwhile to better understand them and their impact,” says Chambers, who has conducted additional research examining how insufficient recognition shapes the amount and scope of knowledge contributions.

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Implications for the remote workforce

The findings of Chambers’ working study are especially important in light of the growing trend for businesses to utilize “gamification” as a way to motivate and manage employees who are working remotely, she says. Some studies have shown that the use of gaming strategies, through which employees can earn “badges” or reputation points, increases engagement. “But researchers know less about the potential dark side of gamification.”

For example, many of these gaming programs digitally record and publicly display information about employees, which could have unintended negative consequences if these actions overly intensify performance pressures and competition between staff members, she notes. Referring back to the “bad behavior” findings in her study of the Stack Overflow community, Chambers says, “managers need to remain vigilant” about the potential downsides of increased competition.

Additionally, with technology making it increasingly easy for businesses to track and enforce the performance and behavior of employees working remotely, it’s worth considering the behavior of the Stack Overflow transgressors — both their “moral cleansing” behavior and that their participation dropped off after formal sanctions, Chambers says.

“To me these results suggest that many people in the workplace are likely to self-correct their negative behavior and that managers would do best to nudge them in that direction rather than come down quickly with sanctions, which, based on my study, could be counter-productive to both the individual and the organization,” says Chambers.


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