“No good deed goes unpunished”- Clare Boothe Luce, author and U.S. Ambassador to Italy (1953-1956)[i]
“. . . my only real motivation is not to be hassled, that and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.” Peter Gibbons, character from Office Space[ii]
Question: I’d love to hear folks’ ways to get around “rewarding for poor performance” and “punishing for good performance”. Logically we all think these are wrong, yet we do them all of the time. For example, the faster worker is asked to pick up the slack. Or everyone knows that “x” cannot perform to expectations, so they don’t get as many assignments as others thus are rewarded.”
Name: Sherry, Training Supervisor
Sherry, this is a great question! Virtually everyone that works can understand this question. With all the advances in our understanding of management, all of the empirical data on decision-making, all of the rigor of performance measurement, this question persists. The story here is again one of motivation (a subject I touched on previously, but distinctly here and here). There are many questions at play here. First, what is motivation? I’ll look at how specific process theories of motivation, such as goal-setting and expectancy theory, which may provide some insight. Second, how do we think about how we define and clarify rewards and punishments? Spoiler alert! Reinforcement of behavior matters here. Lastly, why do high-performers have problems with coworkers? I’ll explain why the high performer may face other costs. This, again, is a lot to discuss. Let’s think together!
Motivation, in theory, as a process…
To review, the textbook for our intro management class here at the University of Minnesota defines motivation as “the desire, stimulus, or incentive to pursue a particular course of action.”[iii] Another text in Organizational Behavior defines motivation as “psychological processes that arouse and direct goal-directed behavior.”[iv]Perhaps the simplest definition, the Merriam-Webster defines motivation as “the act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something.”[v] Given these definitions, how do we take on Sherry’s question?
Distinct from previous discussions on this blog, this question really looks at not just carrots and sticks, but organizational processes. Process theories go beyond the idea of people’s needs in motivation, to consider why they behave in certain ways to satisfy those needs.[vi] In workplaces, people and organizations simultaneously set goals in relation to their respective needs. For the individual, goals direct attention and hopefully lead to satisfied.
One major related area of study is called goal-setting theory. According to long time scholars of goal setting theory Edwin Locke and Gary Latham, the keys to goal setting are 1) clear goals that are measurable and unambiguous, 2) challenging goals that motivate achievement and are accomplishable, 3) commitment to goals gained through shared understanding of those goals, 4) feedback that clarifies performance en route to goals, and 5) an understanding of task complexity, in which goals are reasonably time-bounded (i.e. deadlines are appropriate) and allow individuals to learn.[vii] Usually performance means meeting goals. Thus, high performers by definition are more able to meet or exceed goals in work.
Another performance-related theory is expectancy theory. This area, forwarded by the legendary Victor Vroom, states that employees expect their high efforts lead to performance, which should result in rewards. The three key questions are as follows:
1) Will efforts lead to performance objectives?
2) Will performance objectives lead to rewards?
3) Are the rewards attractive?[viii]
These three questions interact to guide motivation toward performance. Worker may have differing answers to these questions. Adherence to this theory means Managers should be determining what employees value, defining what the organization expects, setting goals that are challenging and achievable, linking performance and outcomes, and constantly analyzing outcomes.[ix]
Rewards, punishments, and misalignments…
So now that the essentials of goals and expectancies have been laid out, it is time to reinforce good behaviors and eliminate bad behaviors. Legendary psychologist B.F. Skinner believed that behavior is learned, that rewards encourage behaviors, and punishments can eliminate bad behaviors. Simply put: rewards are good, punishments are bad, and both drive behavior. This is often referred to as operant conditioning.[x]
So how is all of this goal-setting leading to problems? This all seems so logical. While there is a long literature in dealing with bad employees, it seems the story in Sherry’s question is different: do we know how to treat good employees? To Sherry’s question, rewards and punishments come into play here. What seems at play is misalignment. While systems may be designed with the best intentions of rewarding high performance, the results can indicate otherwise. In a classic article from 1975, Steven Kerr talked of the “Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B.”[xi] For example, managers may want teamwork, but the rewards go to individual efforts within a team. High performers get rewards for certain performance, and then can get lumped with team work that wasn’t theirs (individually) to begin with. There may be no “i” in team, but there appears to be a fundamental problem in allocating more work to good workers. Allowing freeloading is not exactly a reward for a high performer, nor a punishment for a low performer. As another example, some areas of behavior in businesses are difficult to measure, such as interpersonal skills and creativity; thus, those behaviors go unrewarded. In this case, high performance is encouraged, but little or no reinforcement is offered. In the case of the quote from Office Space at the beginning of the article, the only motivation Peter (protagonist) seems to have is minimal avoidance of punishments, not pursuit of rewards. Not good.
Peers and the dark side of high performance…
Another punishment for high performers may not even come from organizationally-sanctioned reinforcements. What happens is that good performance often comes with baggage. Peers often punish high performers. This is not new. Consider the long history of factory workers punishing peers for working “too fast.” New initial research by Beth Campbell, an incoming professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota (shameless plug!!!), and colleagues indicates high performers can be seen as both threatening and beneficial to coworkers. The threat or benefit in their study (under review[xii]) had to do with access to work resources. If resources are limited, peers can feel threatened and competitive toward high performers, often undermining the ‘star’ performer. If resources are shared, peers gain from working with a star, and thus may socially support the high performer. Initial analysis seems to indicate that the only buffer to backlash was an individual’s desire to have a positive impact on others. This is to say, if an individual cares about others and it shows, the backlash appears to be somewhat lessened. If a workplace claims it is a meritocracy, it would seem that such social punishments, which exist outside of sanctioned awards, can be troubling.
Sherry’s question is a frustrating one for many high performers, managers, and academics. Years of scholarship point to ways that guide and reward high performance- including goal-setting, the understanding expectancies, and reinforcing behaviors through rewards and punishments. Years of experience seems to indicate that the results are still mixed. So what is a reward or punishment? What is a manager to do? Alignment matters for organizationally-desired behaviors. Social environments, including the non-sanctioned actions of peers, can also matter. Also, since the scholarship from nearly four decades ago is still so relevant, this begs a serious question to managers and researchers alike: How far have we really come with goals, expectancies, and reinforcements?
There is a LOT of work going on in this area, and my hope is that we will continue to improve our ability to recognize performance and address levels (high or low) appropriately. Also, if you figure this out, tell me about it! (Gulp)
[ii] Judge, Mike (Director, Writer) (1999) Office Space. [Motion picture]. United States: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Cubicle Inc.
[iii]Gulati, R., Mayo, A. J., & Nohria, N. (2014). Management (1st ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.
[iv]Kreitner, R., & Kinicki, A. (2001). Organizational Behavior (5th ed.). New York, NY: Irwin/McGraw-Hill.
[v] Merriam-Webster, Inc. (2013). Motivation- Dictionary and Thesaurus. Retrieved October 7, 2013, from http://www.m-w.com: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/motivation
[vi] Read the Gulati chapter on motivation- it’s really good!!! (cite @ pg. 473
[vii] Locke, E. A., & Latham, G. P. (1990). A theory of goal setting & task performance. Prentice-Hall, Inc.;
good summary from MindTools here:
www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newHTE_87.htm (accessed 5/29/14)
[viii]Vroom, V. H. (1964). Work and motivation.
[ix] Ibid- Gulati et. al (2014) p.475
[x] Summary: McLeod, Saul (2007, 2014). Skinner- Operant Conditioning. SimplyPsychology. http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html. accessed 5/29/14
[xi] Kerr, S. (1975). On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B. academy of Management Journal, 18(4), 769-783.
[xii]Campbell-Bush, E. M., Liao, H., Chuang, A., & Dong, Y. (2013, January). Hot Shots and Cool Reception: Social Consequences of High Performance at Work. In Academy of Management Proceedings (Vol. 2013, No. 1, p. 14310). Academy of Management. Currently under review at Academy of Management Journal (as of 5/29/14)