Monday, September 13, 2010

Paying More for Less: Understanding the Correlation between Big Payment and Work Performance

About a year ago, I wrote a short article on whether there is any relationship between guaranteed high bonus and excessive risk taking by the management of a company. You can see the post here. Basically, such guaranteed high bonus gives a negative incentive to the board of directors to take higher risks in order to gain better benefit for the company. While higher risks might be translated into higher profits, they can also cause higher costs and losses which would trouble the company and the shareholders. In other words, big payment might actually produce worse results.

Apparently, Dan Ariely, a Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, has a similar view on this issue, though he reached the conclusion from different perspective. In his latest book, The Upside of Irrationality, he discusses his experiment which more or less shows that higher payment does not always work. The experiment was conducted in India, where several participants were asked to play some games in which they will receive financial compensation if they completed certain objectives within the games. The tests were divided randomly into 3 categories (the games were same, though), the first category gave very small payment (equal to payment for 1 working day in India), the second category gave mediocre payment (equal to payment for 1 week of work), and the third category provide the highest payment (equal to payment for 5 months of work). FYI, the average costs of one month living in India is US$11, so 5 months means US$55. That's why Dan had enough funds to conduct his research :).

What's the result of the experiment? Well, you might have guessed this: statistically, those who play the games in the third category end up as the worse players. It seems that the thought of having such a huge payment in the end of the game gave them a huge pressure, so huge that most of them fell under the mental pressure. This is interesting and yes, I can relate this to myself. As an example, when I do online shares trading, the bigger the stake is, the harder I make the final decision. It is a very stressful experience! The case is different when the stake is low, and I definitely can make a better decision in such case.

Therefore, it is quite easy for me to understand the result of the above experiment. When you know that the stake is very high (i.e. the end rewards), there is always a possibility that you will fall under the pressure which eventually will affect your overall performance. The similar thing can happen to those CEOs who are promised with guaranteed big fat bonuses. Since they need to establish a sufficient evidence that they are worthy enough to receive such payment, they take actions that might be riskier which then turn out to be a deep trouble for the company. Hence, lower performance.

I must say that Dan Ariely experiments entertain me most of the time. Like it or not, men are not always rational. There are certain conditions where our rationality might be defeated by our impulse. Only by accepting this fact that we can actually improve ourselves from such weakness. For more information, I suggest you to quickly buy the book. It's available in Times, as far as I know.

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