JTFRA Guiding Principles
January 21, 2014 by Steven D. Brewer
The Joint Task Force for Resource Allocation at UMass created a draft set of guiding principles that included language about incentivizing. This is my reply:
I read the JTFRA draft guiding principles with interest and would like to offer one recommendation: reword to avoid creating incentives.
Creating incentives is always a mistake. There is extensive research that shows that rewards don't work -- See Alfie Kohn's "Punished by Rewards" and Daniel Pink's "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us" for two recent examples.
Incentives try to shape behavior by encouraging people to aim for the reward rather than to do what they think is right. It's worth thinking about that. How much time do we want people to spend trying to get rewards rather than trying to do their job as well as they can?
Using rewards and incentives also encourages perverse behavior. It undermines honesty and candor because people try to manipulate the data and appearances to increase the likelihood of receiving the reward -- and to undermine people around them, with whom they are competing.
Finally, the statement "incentivize excellence" is meaningless. What does "incentivize excellence" even mean? Only do things we can do excellently? Just as "something worth doing is worth doing well", it is equally true that "something worth doing is worth doing badly". It's often better to do something badly than not to do it at all.
Ask. Create opportunities. Invest. Don't incentivize.