Individuals & Teams, Carrots & Sticks

I promised Victor Fleisher to return to his reflections on team production. Vic raised the issue of team production and the challenge of monitoring individual performance. In Talent Wants to Be Free I discuss some of these challenges in the connection to my argument that much of what firms try to achieve through restrictive covenants could be achieved through positive incentives:

“Stock options, bonuses, and profit-sharing programs induce loyalty and identification with the company without the negative effects of over-surveillance or over-restriction. Performance-based rewards increase employees’ stake in the company and increase their commitment to the success of the firm. These rewards (and the employee’s personal investment in the firm that is generated by them) can also motivate workers to monitor their co-workers. We now have evidence that companies that use such bonus structures and pay employees stock options outperform comparable companies .”

 But I also warn:

 “[W]hile stock options and bonuses reward hard work, these pay structures also present challenges. Measuring employee performance in innovative settings is a difficult task. One of the risks is that compensation schemes may inadvertently emphasize observable over unobservable outputs. Another risk is that when collaborative efforts are crucial, differential pay based on individual contribution will be counterproductive and impede teamwork, as workers will want to shine individually. Individual compensation incentives might lead employees to hoard information, divert their efforts from the team, and reduce team output. In other words, performance-based pay in some settings risks creating perverse incentives, driving individuals to spend too much time on solo inventions and not enough time collaborating. Even more worrisome is the fear that employees competing for bonus awards will have incentives to actively sabotage one another’s efforts.

A related potential pitfall of providing bonuses for performance and innovative activities is the creation of jealousy and a perception of unfairness among employees. Employees, as all of us do in most aspects of our lives, tend to overestimate their own abilities and efforts. When a select few employees are rewarded unevenly in a large workplace setting, employers risk demoralizing others. Such unintended consequences will vary in corporate and industry cultures across time and place, but they may explain why many companies decide to operate under wage compression structures with relatively narrow variance between their employees’ paychecks. For all of these concerns, the highly innovative software company Atlassian recently replaced individual performance bonuses with higher salaries, an organizational bonus, and stock options, believing that too much of a focus on immediate individual rewards depleted team effort.

Still, despite these risks, for many businesses the carrots of performance-based pay and profit sharing schemes have effectively replaced the sticks of controls. But there is a catch! Cleverly, sticks can be disguised as carrots. The infamous “golden handcuffs”- stock options and deferred compensation with punitive early exit trigger – can operate as de facto restrictive contracts….”

 All this is in line with what Vic is saying about the advantages of organizational forms that encourage longer term attachment. But the fundamental point is that stickiness (or what Vic refers to as soft control) is already quite strong through the firm form itself, along with status quo biases, risk aversion, and search lags. The stickiness has benefits but it also has heavy costs when it is compounded and infused with legal threats.

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