Monday, June 8, 2015

KPIs a dumb way to encourage good performance

You've been doing good work lately, and the boss is thinking of acknowledging your contribution. How would you like to be thanked? With a bonus, or with some kind of award?

If you want the money rather than the glory you'd be in good company. That's how most bosses want their own good work rewarded (and arrange their compensation package accordingly).

And it's how almost every economist would advise your boss to reward you. But don't be so sure it is what you really want, what would yield you the most lasting satisfaction.

One of the big issues in business - particularly big business - is how best to motivate and reward good performance.

Since economics is defined by some economists as the study of incentives, you'd think this was right up their alley. But economics is so focused on monetary incentives that most economists tend to assume away any non-monetary motivations.

They'll tell you the best way to "incentivate" people is performance pay: promise them a particular bonus provided they meet the targets you've set on a few "key performance indicators". Apart from that, just pay the good performers more than the poor performers.

But there's a lot more to human motivation than that and, fortunately, some economists are starting to take a less narrow approach to the topic. One is Professor Bruno Frey, of the University of Zurich.

In a paper with Jana Gallus he discusses The Power of Awards and puts them into the context of other forms of reward. Money is obviously the most common form and it has the great advantage of "fungibility" - you can spend it however you choose. And it can be applied marginally - do a bit more, get a bit more; do a lot more, get a lot more.

A second form of reward is non-monetary, but still a material award: fringe benefits, such as a company car or a particularly attractive office. These have the disadvantage of lacking fungibility (I might prefer money to a car), but usually carry a tax advantage. Even a corner office brings me status that isn't taxed.

Money and cars are "extrinsic motivators" - you do a good job as a means to getting what you really want. The message is slow to get through to business, but among behavioural economists there's now more interest encouraging "intrinsic" motivation - you do a good job because it makes you feel good. You're good at what you do and you enjoy doing it. You like knowing you've done a lot to help your customers.

The way to foster intrinsic motivation is to treat your staff well, of course, but the key is to give people discretion in the way they do their jobs. It's the opposite of trying to tie them up with KPIs.

Frey and Gallus say awards fall somewhere between these two approaches - they're extrinsic, but often not material. They include titles, prizes, orders, medals and other decorations. They are ubiquitous in society, if not business.

They're widely used in public life (various ranks of the Order of Australia), the entertainment industry (Oscars, Grammys, Logies), journalism (Walkleys, journalist of the year), sport (Brownlow medal, Dally M medal, Olympic medals), academia (fellowships of prestigious scholarly bodies, honorary doctorates, Nobel prizes) and the Catholic Church (canonisation and papal knighthoods).

The point is that the many advantages of awards suggest they should be used more in the business world.

For one thing, they're cheap to confer, but highly valued by the recipient because of the recognition as well as status they bring - provided you don't give out too many, make them too easy to attain or award them to the clearly undeserving.

More significantly, they avoid the drawback of KPIs and performance pay. The authors say such inducements are appropriate only if the performance criteria are precisely determined and measured. But for many complex activities, this is  not possible.

If it isn't, KPIs encourage what social scientists euphemistically call "strategic behaviour" - gaming the system by performing well only on those dimensions that are measured.

Monetary rewards may reduce work effort by crowding out intrinsic motivation, training people to try hard only when there's money to be gained. Why spend time helping a colleague when this might help them achieve their KPIs at the expense of your own?

The authors say monetary rewards don't induce employee loyalty. They're a strictly commercial transaction. But awards do encourage loyalty, as well as intrinsic motivation.

Overpaid chief executives shouldn't assume their workers are as materialistic as they are, nor should they imagine their firm would do better if their workers' materialistic tendencies were heightened.