© 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 ...view middle of the document...
However, since operative goals are lower in acceptance, and since aspirants to public office need acceptance (from at least 50.1 percent of the people), most politicians prefer to speak only of official goals, at least until after the election. They of course would agree to speak at the operative level if “punished” for not doing so. The electorate could do this by refusing to support candidates who do not speak at the operative level. Instead, however, the American voter typically punishes (withholds support from) candidates who frankly discuss where the money will come from, rewards
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politicians who speak only of official goals, but hopes that candidates (despite the reward system) will discuss the issues operatively. 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. But not necessarily! It depends on how the reward system is set up. The Vietnam war was indeed a study of disobedience and rebellion, with terms such as “fragging” (killing one’s own commanding officer) and “search and evade” becoming part of the military vocabulary. The difference in subordinates’ acceptance of authority between World War II and Vietnam is reported to be considerable, and veterans of the Second World War were often quoted as being outraged at the mutinous actions of many American soldiers in Vietnam. 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! If he disobeyed the orders to clean out the trenches and take the hills, the war would not be won and he would not go home. Furthermore, what were his chances of attaining his goal (getting home alive) if he obeyed the orders compared to his chances if he did not? What is being suggested is that the rational soldier in World War II, whether patriotic or not, probably found it expedient to obey. 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. Furthermore, concerning the relative chance of getting home alive by obeying orders compared to the chance if they were disobeyed, it is worth noting that a mutineer in Vietnam was far more likely to be assigned rest and rehabilitation
(on the assumption that fatigue was the cause) than he was to suffer any negative consequence.
In his description of the “zone of indifference,” Barnard stated that “a person can and will accept a communication as...