Money_Trap_Mark Hanna:   The name of the game, move the money from your client’s pocket into your pocket.
Jordan Belfort:   But if you can make your clients money at the same time it’s advantageous to everyone, correct?
Mark Hanna:   No

(Dialogue from the movie ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, 2013)

I have an article on how to ‘Engage the employee with the right reward’ up on People Matters where I continue to advocate the need for companies to find the right strategy towards rewarding their employees – doling out cash bonuses just doesn’t cut it.

This post however, is more about what I left out of that article (thanks to word-count limits and the need to stay focused on the theme). At the very beginning of the article I mention in passing how the financial collapse of 2008 exposed the flaw of a cash-bonus-linked-to-sales strategy. What I did not write about was the erosion of trust that the greed of a few caused. And lets fact it – this is true about any industry, not just banking. There are plenty of examples in other sectors like call-center employees cutting short or worse hanging up on customers, because their variable pay was linked to number of calls attended rather than issues successfully resolved, engineers using short-cuts to get automobile products out faster without adequate testing or known flaws leading to catastrophic failures or in some cases deaths.

The death spiral for the company arising out of perverse incentive structures is actually quite simple:

Wrong incentive structure -> Incorrect actions by employees -> Short term spike in sales/output->A select few get rich on commissions/bonus->Medium Term/Long Term problems come home to roost->Best case – the company/product brand takes a hit, Worst case company goes belly-up.

Jordan Belfort:   My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26 I made $49 million dollars which really pissed me off because it was 3 shy of a million a week. – (Dialogue from the movie ‘The Wolf on Wall Street’)

Pre-2008 some bankers just went (massively) overboard in pushing their banks hurtling down that spiral and got the whole industry in a mess since everybody ended up doing the same shenanigans to get massive bonus payouts.

Joseph Stiglitz in his excellent article ‘In No One We Trust’ talks in depth of this erosion of trust and says

“…We had created a system of rewards that encouraged short-sighted behavior and excessive risk-taking. In fact, we had entered an era in which moral values were given short shrift and trust itself was discounted.

… Bank managers and corporate executives search out creative accounting devices to make their enterprises look good in the short run, even if their long-run prospects are compromised.”

So do we take the money-is-root-of-all-evil approach and pay people in food coupons? No. Absolutely not, but neither can leadership of companies afford to take the ‘lazy’ route to establishing a rewards strategy but just resorting to cash payouts as a percentage of profit/sales/top-line. (Remember Enron anyone? Even as the company was imploding, its executives were rewarded with large bonuses for meeting specific revenue goals.) The problem here is not only the flawed rewards structure, but something much deeper. Something for which the whole organization exists in the first place – the very raison d’etre.

The real challenge for leadership in establishing a rewards strategy – goals:

Before you worry about ‘how to reward employees’, the greater challenge is in establishing ‘what’ you are rewarding them for. “Organizational Goals!” you say and full marks to you. Employees in an organization are working on their individual goals which eventually must meld together to achieve the organizational goal.  Employees at Enron were also being paid to achieve organizational goals but in hindsight it’s obvious those goals were all wrong!

Things can also go horribly wrong when impossible goals are set because, leaders shoot their mouth off or get visions of grandeur. Let’s take a short trip back in time. It’s the late 1960’s. The Ford Motor Company was fast losing ground to more fuel efficient cars the Japanese were cranking out. Lee Iacocca, a very smart man with lots of successful launches to his credit, (and the then CEO of Ford), announced the challenge of producing a new car that would weigh less than 2000 pounds and cost less than $2000 and would be available in the market in 1970. The result: skipped safety checks on the Ford Pinto that led to cars catching fire and eventually resulted in massive law suits.

 So we now realize that organizations have a more fundamental problem – with goal setting. That goal usually filters down from the top – which brings us to an interesting conundrum. Going back to what Stiglitz has to say in his article.

“So C.E.O.’s must be given stock options to induce them to work hard. I find this puzzling: If a firm pays someone $10 million to run a company, he should give his all to ensure its success. He shouldn’t do so only if he is promised a big chunk of any increase in the company’s stock market value…”

 Research has shown that the motivation that people will have to do the right thing or blow the whistle when things are not quite going the way they should is greatly enhanced when they feel they are working for a larger purpose than just monetary gain. When the only incentive one has is money, it tends to create the ‘stretch goal’ trap. Bigger goals – Bigger reward – Bigger bank balance! Forget everything else, all ‘that’ is somebody else’s problem. The ‘Big Whale’ trades, the LIBOR fixing scandal, the recent record fines paid by JP Morgan, Enron, the list just goes on and on.

“Of course, incentives are an important component of human behavior. But the incentive movement has made them into a sort of religion, blind to all the other factors — social ties, moral impulses, compassion — that influence our conduct.” (Stiglitz)

Setting the correct goals is thus fundamental to achieving the desired output from employees. Goals that are too narrow; are too many in number or have an inappropriate time horizon which eventually result in, higher risk taking and unethical behaviour by employees in an attempt to meet those goals.

So how do we set the right goals?

This, dear reader, is the trillion dollar question. The ultimate question of life, the universe and everything – the answer as we all know is 42! There we have it. Problem Solved. :)

With due apologies to Douglas Adams, there is no one correct answer for this. With incorrect incentives, the chances of the goals themselves being set wrongly go up exponentially. Add to that the fact that goals when applied to teams with have varied levels of challenge for its members.

In their Working Paper, ‘Goals gone wild’, Lisa D. Ordonez et al. point this out –

“Perverse incentives can also make goal setting politically and practically problematic. When reaching pre-set goals matters more than absolute performance, self-interested individuals can strategically set (or guide their managers to set) easy-to-meet goals. By lowering the bar, they procure valuable rewards and accolades. Many company executives often choose to manage expectations rather than maximize earnings. In some cases, managers set a combination of goals that, in aggregate, appears rational, but is in fact not constructive. For example, consider a self-interested CEO who receives a bonus for hitting targets. This CEO may set a mix of easy goals (that she is sure to meet) and ‘what the hell’ difficult goals (that she does not plan to meet). On average, the goal levels may seem appropriate, but this mix of goals may generously reward the CEO (when she meets the easy goals) without motivating any additional effort when the goals are difficult.”

Goal setting and the consequent rewards strategy are closely intertwined. Your rewards strategy might be well thought out, meaningful and beautifully executed but if they are being handed out for the wrong goals, it will still be meaningless in the long run. Rather than taking the easy way out of boiling the organizations goals down to the revenue numbers and profit figures of billions of dollars, its time leaders spent more time establishing meaningful goals that are aligned with the long term interest of the organization and all its share-holders.

The alternative of continuing with status-quo on goals and incentives is a scary proposition. Already there are rumblings of real estate and investment bubbles building up in South East Asian economies as a consequence of the Fed tapering. Another large financial shock just might be the proverbial last-straw on the camel’s back. On the positive side, we might get a few more entertaining movies.

References and acknowledgements for this post:

‘In no one we trust’, Joseph E. Stiglitz, NYTimes, 12 December 2013, Goals gone wild: The systematic side effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting, Lisa D. Ordonez and others, HBS Working Paper, 09-083, Image used in this post courtesy of Free Digital Photos.

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