The Worldly Wisdom Project #3

A few weeks back I came across an interesting article about rewards named On the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B written by Steven Kerr. As I’m a strong sceptic of stock options program and alike I always find stuff like this interesting to read. Although it was written in 1995 the lessons given by Kerr in the article have no expiration date. Instead, the article has over the years become an classic in its field of study. In the article Kerr gives numerous examples that showcase how we humans as every other organism on this planet “seek information concerning what activities are rewarded, and then seek to do (or at least pretend to do) those things, often to the virtual exclusion of activities not rewarded“. (p.7) Other than stating examples, Kerr dives into the discussion about causes and what might be done to improve the situation of rewards. In this worldly wisdom post I will focus on some of the examples as they were the ones that really caught my attention while reading. However, I do recommend reading the whole article as it is only 9 pages long and can easily be find with a Google search.

Please comment if you have read the article and what you thought of it. Also, if you have found a worldly wisdom in the article that you think I should have included please comment on that as well. I’m very interested in what caught your eye while reading and why.

Four worldly wisdom’s from On the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B by Steven Kerr

In War

If some oversimplification may be permitted, let it be assumed that the primary goal of the organization (Pentagon, Luftwaffe, or whatever) is to win. Let it be assumed further that the primary goal of most individuals on the front lines is to get home alive. Then there appears to be an important conflict in goals—personally rational behavior by those at the bottom will endanger goal attainment by those at the top.

Consider, however, some critical differences in the reward system in use during the two conflicts. What did the GI in World War II want? To go home. And when did he get to go home? When the war was won!

Consider the reward system in use in Vietnam. What did the soldier at the bottom want? To go home. And when did he get to go home? When his tour of duty was over! This was the case whether or not the war was won.” (p.8)

In Medicine

Theoretically, physicians can make either of two types of error, and intuitively one seems as bad as the other. Doctors can pronouncepatients sick when they are actually well (a type 1 error), thus causing them needless anxiety and expense, curtailment of enjoyable foods and activities, and even physical danger by subjecting them to needless medication and surgery. Alternately, a doctor can label a sick person well (a type 2 error), and thus avoid treating what may be a serious, even fatal ailment. It might be natural to conclude that physicians seek to minimize both types of error.

Such a conclusion would be wrong. It has been estimated that numerous Americans have been afflicted with iatrogenic (physician caused) illnesses.* This occurs when the doctor is approached by someone complaining of a few stray symptoms. The doctor classifies and organizes these symptoms, gives them a name, and obligingly tells the patient what further symptoms may be expected. This information often acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the result that from that day on the patient for all practical purposes is sick. Why does this happen? Why are physicians so reluctant to sustain a type 2 error (pronouncing a sick person well) that they will tolerate many type 1 errors? Again, a look at the reward system is needed. The punishments for a type 2 error are real: guilt, embarrassment, and the threat of a malpractice suit. On the other hand, a type 1 error (labeling a well person sick) is a much safer and conservative approach to medicine in today’s litigious society.” (p. 8-9)

In Universities

Society hopes that professors will not neglect their teaching responsibilities but rewards them almost entirely for research and publications. This is most true at the large and prestigious universities. Cliches such as “good research and good teaching go together” notwithstanding, professors often find that they must choose between teaching and research-oriented activities when allocating their time. Rewards for good teaching are usually limited to outstanding teacher awards, which are given to only a small percentage of good teachers and usually bestow little money and fleeting prestige. Punishments for poor teaching are also rare.” (p. 9)

In Sports

Most coaches disdain to discuss individual accomplishments, preferring to speak of teamwork, proper attitude, and one-for-all spirit. Usually, however, rewards are distributed according to individual performance. The college basketball player who passes the ball to teammates instead of shooting will not compile impressive scoring statistics and is less likely to be drafted by the pros. The ballplayer who hits to right field to advance the runners will win neither the batting nor home run titles, and will be offered smaller raises. It therefore is rational for players to think of themselves first, and the team second.” (p.10)

Kerr S. (1995) On the folly of rewarding A while hoping for B. Academy of Management Executive; 9(1): 7-14.

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