Strange behaviour in the workplace? Check out "Rewarding A while hoping for B"

This is a management classic in terms of its relevance and insightfulness.  On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B (Kerr, S. 1975. On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B. Academy of Management Journal) was published in 1975 and I have used it often as a manager or consultant. I encourage you to read the article as it is well written and understandable, something many academic articles are not.

In a nutshell, we behave the way we do in response to a number of factors which are summarised in the following diagram.

A & B.jpg

In nearly all situations in the work environment, and in life, there are consequences to our actions.  Some consequences are positive, like a pay rise, and some are negative, like being fired.  It isn't rocket science that we, as individuals, act in a rational manner and try and maximise the positive consequences whilst minimising the negative consequences.

This article highlights that the reward systems in our organisations are often set up to reward one type of behaviour (A) when we really want/hope for another type of behaviour (B).  If you want your sales force to create long term relationships with clients, don't bonus them for new business, bonus them for client retention.  Equally if you want team work, reward the team and not just individuals.

My favourite example in the article contrasts WWII with the Vietnam war.

The Vietnam war was indeed a study of disobedience and rebellion, with terms such as "fragging" (killing one's own commanding officer) and "search and evade" becoming part of the military vocabulary. The difference in subordinates' acceptance of authority between World War II and Vietnam is reported to be considerable.

Consider, however, some critical differences in the reward system in use during the two conflicts. What did the GI in World War II want? To go home. And when did he get to go home? When the war was won! If he disobeyed the orders to clean out the trenches and take the hills, the war would not be won and he would not go home. Furthermore, what were his chances of attaining his goal (getting home alive) if he obeyed the orders compared to his chances if he did not? What is being suggested is that the rational soldier in World War II, whether patriotic or not, probably found it expedient to obey.

Consider the reward system in use in Vietnam. What did the man at the bottom want? To go home. And when did he get to go home? When his tour of duty was over! This was the case whether or not the war was won. Furthermore, concerning the relative chance of getting home alive by obeying orders compared to the chance if they were disobeyed, it is worth noting that a mutineer in Vietnam was far more likely to be assigned rest and rehabilitation (on the assumption that fatigue was the cause) than he was to suffer any negative consequence.

If you observe a behaviour in your workplace that doesn't seem to make sense, try and see what the underlying reward system is encouraging, chances are the behaviour makes sense to the individual.  Cost shifting between departments inside an organisation makes no sense (and adds no value) but if your bonus is tied to your departments result then it makes absolute sense.

This simple concept has been invaluable over the years and has helped organisations I've been involved with make sure what the actually want, they reward.