Monday, April 21, 2008

Do Big Money Bonuses Really Increase Job Performance?

I came across an interesting study in the “PsyBlog” about the impact of large bonuses on job performance. In this experiment, professor Dan Ariely went to India and recruited [poor] local people to accomplish several tasks, offering a performance bonus equivalent to up to a month’s salary. In 8 of the 9 tasks, the promise of a large bonus significantly decreased people’s performance.

The summary of the paper on the PsyBlog seemed a bit counter-intuitive. Most companies around the world would most likely not have some flavor of a pay-for-performance program if a bonus was actually decreasing performance.

So what is happening? On one hand, I think that if the bonus is very high, participants could have been really stressed out about the task and not performing as well because of that pressure. It is also possible that performance decreased because participants did not actually believe they would receive the bonus for a variety of reasons – sometimes when only a certain number of people can receive the max bonus, participants feel they don’t have a chance to perform at the required level and behave accordingly. Even if there is no maximum number of participants who can receive the largest bonus, the performance required to get the bonus could be perceived as being unattainable or not worth it.

The relative value of bonuses versus the effort required to obtain them is another factor which could affect the participant’s behavior. If working exceedingly hard is required to get the max bonus but that only a moderate amount of work is required to get a bonus which is only slightly inferior, many participants could be settling for the smaller bonus.

I spent some time looking for other papers on this topic and found a few other possible explanations. The “crowding out” theory supports the hypothesis that incentive pay decreases employees’ motivation to perform up to abilities. The explanation generally given for this is that the introduction of an obligatory amount of output to produce is often considered by employees as a signal of distrust. The papers I found discussing the crowding theory are: Titmuss (1970), Rothe(1970), Gneezy and Rustichini (2000), and McNabb and Whitfield (2003). Papers by Kruse (1992), and Ichniowski and Shaw (2003) “prove” that incentive pay positively affects employees’ effort.

As for me, based on my own observations and “empirical evidence”, I will side with Kruse, Ichniowski and Shaw to say that incentive pay (if used properly) can positively affect employees’ performance.

1 comment:

Julien Dionne said...

Shortly after posting to my blog I found the original paper which uses less absolute terms. http://nash.princeton.edu/seminars/BEHAVIORALECO/BEHAVIORAL%20ECO/BE%20Fall%202005/Ariely.pdf

"...Our experiment suggests, however, that one cannot assume that introducing or raising incentives always improves performance. It now
appears that beyond some threshold level, raising incentives may increase motivation to supraoptimal
levels and result in perverse effects on performance."

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Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Julien Dionne is a well-rounded consultant with global business management experience and outstanding technical, business and leadership skills. He earned a Bachelor of Applied Science in Software Engineering from the University of Ottawa, Canada, and he is a member of the Canadian Professional Sales Association. The views posted within this blog do not reflect the views of Julien’s current or previous employers and clients. Julien can be reached at julien.dionne@gmail.com