Revisit an Important Topic – a repeat posting from 2013
It is accepted wisdom in human resource management practice that financial incentives, wages and bonuses, drive work performance((1)). This is a part of our business and political culture.((2)) Though studies and surveys have shown for decades that people find many other factors (growth of skills, engagement, sense of purpose, social connection, and many others) to be important in their work, the key to every human resource management strategy has been the compensation plan. Increasingly over the past couple of decades human resource management professionals have devised ever more complex methods for connecting various performance metrics to compensation plans.
Do Financial Incentives Work?
Multiple research studies show that for work involving mental engagement financial incentives, especially large ones, actually reduce work performance.
- Read “Large Stakes and Big Mistakes”(download a PDF) by Dan Ariely, Uri Gneezy, George Loewenstein, and Nina Mazar for one study that includes experiments in India to check for cultural biases.
- Dan Ariely recasts this study and adds more in his New York Times opinion piece from 2008 “What’s the Value of a Big Bonus?”((3))
- Then, for the last Dan Ariely reference, here he is showing lots of his experiments in a twenty minute TED Talk “What makes us feel good about our work?”
- Or, for an 18 minute video, see Daniel Pink’s TED talk “The Puzzle of Motivation”
- Finally, “Pay-for-Performance Doesn’t Always Pay Off” by Harvard Business School Professor Michael Beer.
You might argue that this does not explain away the body of academic studies that show that there is a positive relationship between financial incentives for executives and company performance. I will leave it to someone else to wade through that material. I will only offer up the simple gross fact that CEO compensation as a multiple of average worker pay has risen from 20 to 1 in 1950 to over 200 to 1 today.((4))
Has corporate performance in real terms increased by 10 times over that period? Obviously not.
Daniel Pink argues in his TED Talk that the key motivators in work are:
- Autonomy – control over one’s work, how you approach it, where you do it, at what time
Mastery – learning and mastering new skills – enhancing capabilities
Purpose – working on tasks that are greater than the individual or the company – something good for the greater whole.
These three are at least a good, provocative starting place. The key is to start thinking about how your human resource management strategy is structuring work to respond to these needs and not simply throwing money at the problem of performance.
Money Does Matter – Relatively
We might close with a note that money does matter in one dimension. Employees need to feel that they are being compensated fairly. In order for non-financial intrinsic motivators to work, they need to know that they are not being ripped off. If you pay strategy puts your compensation significantly below the average for your type of work in your local area, you will very likely spend more time thinking about finding a new employer rather than how much autonomy, mastery or purpose is being fulfilled. Essentially you need to pay in a fashion that takes that issue off the table.
- Note that we are talking about individuals here. Organizations, for profit, non-profits and government, definitely react positively to financial incentives and disincentives [↩]
- In fact the notion that people make “rational” decisions based in part on financial rewards is a central pillar of our “if we only let markets work, everything will run smoothly” culture. [↩]
- I must admit to having just finished up a course Introduction to Behavioural Economics taught by Dan Ariely on coursera.org [↩]
- http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-04-30/ceo-pay-1-795-to-1-multiple-of-workers-skirts-law-as-sec-delays.html Top CEO Pay Ratios [↩]