A Question of Incentive

Jerry Kvasnicka

Wednesday, March 7, 2018
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By Jerry Kvasnicka

A year or two into my job as an elementary school custodian I was told by my supervisor that I was being raised to a higher pay grade, but also that I would be expected to improve my performance and work even harder. While I was delighted at the prospect of more compensation, the announcement left me somewhat confused, for I was already working at peak performance, giving the job everything I had. This is the only way I know how to work:  giving everything I do my very highest and finest.

My supervisor evidently made the assumption that I operate in the same way that probably the majority of people in society operate: Performance is tied to rewards or incentives; the harder you work the greater your reward in terms of money or some other value. I do believe the school where I was working had a “pay for performance” system, apparently predicated on the assumption that teachers would flounder in mediocrity until the lure of more money was dangled before them. Isn’t all of this simply a concession to what has come to be accepted as “human nature”—where human consciousness has been conditioned to give and to create only when that action can be connected to some external reward?

My performance doesn’t depend on pay

Many school systems, businesses and governmental agencies have adopted the pay for performance model to provide the incentives that are thought essential to motivate employees to really deliver the goods. Notice that “pay” comes first in this equation. Doesn’t this reverse the natural sequence of things—first performance, then pay? And rather than an enticement or even an earned reward, why not see pay as simply the by-product of prior production and a convenient means of allowing additional production to occur? Surely it is the generation of value in the moment, the creative release of life for its own sake, not the lure of a future reward, that rightly consumes our attention and motivates our action.

In a talk at a business conference the owner of a large cattle ranch in British Columbia put it this way: “At the base of our motivation must be a recognition that the reasons for being in business—or for that matter, having jobs—are not first to do with making money but with being generative people, of being in position to interact in ways that allow qualities of stability and liveliness to find expression in our immediate practical circumstances.” His words echo something Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “The only reward of virtue is virtue.” Work carries its own reward: the pure satisfaction of doing it.

Competitive stress can compromise performance

When work is done primarily for a monetary or other reward, an unnatural element of stress is injected into the employment exercise. I once worked as a telemarketer in a phone promotion offered through a local radio station. At one point, the ten of us making calls were told that the first person to get four sales within an hour would receive a substantial bonus. Did I immediately straighten up and try harder? No, since I was already moving at top speed consistent with quality. But I felt the unnatural element of stress and competition the announcement brought into the room.  In order to make as many calls as possible those around me began to compromise the care they took with each call. Instead of having fun with each phone conversation, sale or no sale, everything was geared toward squeezing a “yes” out of the person called.

Broadening this out to the larger picture, the U.S. has what might be described as a “demand economy” rather than a “command economy” such as was the case with the former Soviet Union and some countries such as North Korea and Cuba that are still trying to make communism work. The law of supply and demand originally expounded by Adam Smith looks great on paper; as a theoretical model it even has a certain beauty. But in actual practice, this impersonal market mechanism based on economic incentives that is supposed to conduce to the good of all is subject to manipulation by human beings preoccupied with their personal wants and desires. The bottom-line demand is, “Make me comfortable and happy.”

A world where the good of the whole is primary

The ultimate results of this thick vein of selfishness that has inserted itself into the core of human nature are the very maladies that dog the U.S. economy today: inflation, unemployment, persisting pockets of poverty and astronomical levels of government, and corporate and consumer debt. And so the world still awaits what would be truly remarkable: a functioning society whose citizens, without coercion, consistently subordinate their personal wants and desires to the good of the whole, a society where the benefit offered to others and the Earth itself is incentive enough for responsible and productive action.

Poet and novelist Rudyard Kipling set forth this vision in “L’Envoi”:

  “And no one shall work for money,
     and no one shall work for fame;
     But each for the joy of the working,
     and each in his separate star,
     Shall draw the Thing as he sees It,
     for the God of things as They Are!”

A return to true character and values

There is a longing or natural inclination built into the very core of every human being to offer something of value in the living of life, a compulsion to express integrity and the other qualities of true character, a quest for creativity and excellence. But this innate impulse gets covered over if not totally smothered by the conditioning that comes from living in a world where false values springing from greed and self-centered ambition tend to dominate.

Economic incentives, competitive enticements of all sorts—yes, given the present state of human consciousness, I suppose these contrivances may be useful in mobilizing the energies of human beings to ensure that least something gets done. But if we will allow this spurious conditioning to dissolve so that our inherent creative impulse and passion for excellence can surface in life expression, we will find all such artificial devices unnecessary, not only unnecessary but dehumanizing.

Greed and indolence are not the operative principles of the universal order, and as the latter nudges us toward maturity and global consciousness in these opening years of a new millennium, we would do well to embrace its wisdom.