Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

What's the incentive?


Anthony R. Wheeler, a professor of organizational behavior, looks at the news from a human resources management perspective and suggests some questions the press hasn't asked. They may not be the sort of questions reporters typically ask - but they sure might elicit some interesting answers.

By Anthony R. Wheeler

Q. How does the Bush administration define a good performer — say at the federal department head level? What are the indicators that signal success or failure at performing the job? What are the criteria used to select appointees? The internal process of selecting these people is a mystery to the public.

Q. In terms of the recruiting, selection, and training of Iraqi civil servants and police/military personnel: How are they being recruited, e.g., what are the sources of applicants, what information is included on job postings, how realistic is that information?

Q. What is the selection criteria used to make the hire/not hire decision? What is the training like? And how is transfer of knowledge from training to the job measured, i.e. is there any follow up to determine if the training works?

Q. What incentives are used to motivate Iraqi civil servants and police/military personnel? Management scholars and practitioners question the long-term motivational influence of money. So what other incentives are out there to motivate people to perform their jobs?

One problem that many organizations suffer relates to incentives. Many years ago, management expert Steven Kerr authored a now legendary article about the misuse of incentives entitled "On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B" (Updated and republished in the Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 9 Issue 1, 1995). Basically, Kerr notes several examples of where organizations and societies reward a behavior they seek to discourage — while still somehow hoping that employees and people display the desirable behavior.

For instance, Kerr describes how politicians have little incentive to provide specific details during campaigns, as the media, opposing candidates, and the public tend to scrutinize detailed plans. Moreover, the American public rewards politicians for providing detail-free, yet visionary policies by electing them to office. Once in office, however, the media, opposing political parties, and the public scream out for details of policies and often are upset about the policies offered.

Most Americans agree that Social Security is a long-term problem, but a huge debate grows as to how to best handle this problem. Instead of electing our politicians based upon the details of their policies, we elect them based upon our perceptions of their vision.  In fact, during political campaigns, we eviscerate detailed policies (remember Al Gore's "lock box"?) in lieu of vision, only to then complain later about the details.

Another area that Kerr discussed in his seminal article was the folly of military enlistments during the Vietnam War. As opposed to WWII, where the operational goal was to rid the world of national socialism and the troops couldn't go home until that goal was achieved, the troops in Vietnam just had to make it through the prescribed year of service mandated by the draft. We see the same dynamic now in Iraq. The operational goal of ridding the world of terrorism and tyranny does not mesh on the ground, where many American troops just want to get home. Again, the government hopes that troops will be motivated to achieve the broader goals of the war but the enlistment and deployment policies of the military instead encourage the troops to want to do their time and get out. In essence, the government rewards the behavior it seeks to discourage and fails to reward the behavior that is seeks. Is there any wonder that the American people are so conflicted over Iraq?

President Clinton's campaign famously stated, “It’s the economy, stupid!”, but Kerr would argue that in terms of human behavior, "It's the incentives, stupid!"

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.