On the Folly of Rewarding a While Hoping for

In: Business and Management

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© Academy of Management Executive. 1995 Vol. 9 No.1

AN ACADEMY CLASSIC On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B
Steven Kerr Executive Overview

This article, updated for AME, needs no introduction.1 Even today, the original article is still widely reprinted. Now part of the lexicon, it truly qualifies as an Academy of Management Classic for almost twenty years, its title has reminded executives and scholars alike-it's the reward system. stupid!" We hope you enjoy the update! Editor

Whether dealing with monkeys, rats, or human beings, it is hardly controversial to state that most organisms 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. The extent to which this occurs of course will depend on the perceived attractiveness of the rewards offered, but neither operant nor expectancy theorists would quarrel with the essence of this notion. Nevertheless, numerous examples exist of reward systems that are fouled up in that the types of behavior rewarded are those which the rewarder is trying to discourage, while the behavior desired is not being rewarded at all. Fouled Up Systems In Politics Official goals are “purposely vague and general and do not indicate. . . the host of decisions that must be made among alternative ways of achieving official goals and the priority of multiple goals. . . ”2 They usually may be relied on to offend absolutely no one, and in this sense can be considered high acceptance, low quality goals. An example might be “All Americans are entitled to health care.” Operative goals are higher in quality but lower in acceptance, since they specify where the money will come from, and what alternative goals will be ignored. The American citizenry supposedly wants its candidates for public office to set forth…...

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