Thursday, October 04, 2007

This is pay, sort of...

In a Spanish proverb, "God says, 'Choose what you will and pay for it.'" And things generally work that way. Pay isn't always good, or a benefit, but when we think of work we think of money coming in, and generally see it as a benefit. I work. I get paid. Money. I have salary, insurance benefits, vacation time, and sick leave. Not all money, exactly, but still pay. It's all pay. All coming in. To me. It's good.

Normally we don't include medical and dental insurance, vacation time or sick leave in our thinking of "pay". But consider taking a job that doesn't offer any of these, if you can. Then think of an identical job that does offer them all and tell me which one you'd actually take.

Exactly. Because one pays more. No doubt about which hook to bite. Glad we got that out of the way.

Don't complain when you start seeing your two weeks off show up on your income tax statement as it will one day. I once worked at a place where you were entitled, after one year, to one week off without pay. You could wander off for a week and rest up, and they wouldn't replace you while you were gone. If you could afford to be gone. That was your vacation time. Being down there right at ground level puts things into perspective. No fooling.

Besides the basics some people get stock options, a company car, bonuses, and some non-monetary things like prizes or other material goods, framed certificates, or praise such as being named employee of the (fill-in-the-blank).

So that about wraps it up then, eh?

Nope, and you knew it didn't.

Even if you've never had "a job" you know better. Work is what someone else tells you to do. You have a boss. Usually several. In most places I've worked, we might have 50 people in the office, and five or six levels of supervisors. Talk about your wonderful life there.

"Supervisor" literally means one who views from above. "Overseer" is a direct synonym. Supervisors came into their own in 19th-century factories where the supervisor was actually a person who sat in a high chair and watched everyone work. Made sure that they worked. Oversaw the workers. You could tell that they were workers because they didn't speak, had their heads down, and kept their hands moving. Anyone who spoke, or looked up, or slowed down got clipped by the supervisor.

Which is a little like being told you're unprofessional because you haven't chosen to wear a suit to work. Professionals being the ones wearing the antique, expensive, and painful clothes. Like supervisors wear. Professional supervisors.

Being a supervisor hurts because it's so hard, and so godlike. A supervisor has to be all-knowing, and that is very difficult. Someone who evaluates the work of everyone else has to be all-knowing and infallible, and the wearing of painful clothing shrivels into absolute insignificance other than as a way of making it obvious who's boss. It's a way of intimidating others by proving that nothing, not even a noose around your neck all day, can intrude upon your consciousness, even a tiny bit.

And we all need a boss. Because if we didn't have bosses we wouldn't have people telling us what to do and how and when and how hard and how long. We would run wild in the streets, or maybe nap all day. Because we are not professionals and we do not have all-seeing knowledge and we are lazy and cannot possibly control ourselves.

The boss is not like that, wild in the streets and fun, but no one has ever been able to explain just why it is that the boss does not need supervision by another boss who is supervised by an infinite chain leading right up to, through, and infinitely beyond God. No one has ever explained why it's not supervisors all the way up. They just stop somewhere, and its them versus us. And we are seen as interchangeable and expendable parts and they are not, so limited in their numbers as they are. And to get us to do anything at all they have in one hand a stick, and in the other hand a carrot or a donut or maybe a dime.

Sticks have lately been deprecated in a public relations sort of way, so we hear a lot more about carrots, even from dictators. They've all got the PR religion now. It's always the "Democratic Republic" of somewhere and never Generalissimo Bob's Evil Hell Hole and Rotting Torture Cesspool, even if that's what it is.

And this attitude has infected business and the world of work.

They (the chain of bosses) have decided that a salary (including a few side benefits) is an unavoidable and necessary evil, but only a minimum. If you, Mr/Ms Expendable, want to make it on the job you have to show some flash and be able to snag a bonus. If you do you earn more but also avoid sinking into the bottom ten percent. You know, the ones who just get fired every year to keep the basement nice and clean, and because it's fun to fire people. Whoops! Looks like there's still a stick around after all.

But mostly it's reward time. Some kind of reward. Incentive pay. Gold stars to display at evaluation time. Real pay. Stuff you can use to keep your job.

And oddly enough, rewards don't work. They aren't real pay after all. We'll get to real pay next time, but right now let's talk about the kind of pay that rots your teeth and makes you hate your life and think longingly of how good that smooth, round, cold gun barrel would feel sliding in between your lips as your finger tightens on the trigger.

Hey, how crazy am I? Everyone knows that goosing someone with performance-based pay gets the juices flowing and turns a warehouse stuffed full of slackers into a lean, mean fighting machine. 'Cep'n 'taint so, love. 'Taint so.
To the best of my knowledge, no controlled scientific study has ever found a long-term enhancement of the quality of work as a result of any incentive system. In fact, numerous studies have confirmed that performance on tasks, particularly complex tasks, is generally lower when people are promised a reward for doing them, or for doing them well. As a rule, the more prominent or enticing the reward, the more destructive its effects. (Alfie Kohn, Education Week, September 17, 2003)
He has a good web site ( and he's been at it a long time. His book "Punished by Rewards" is also good.

Kohn has found that
  1. Rewards punish. It turns out that rewards and punishment are two sides of the same coin, and that both are naked attempts at manipulation. Rewards don't usually hurt quite as much, though they can be just as humiliating as punishment can be.

  2. Rewards disrupt relationships. Rewards create winners and losers (usually one winner and a roomful of happy losers). Rewards foster enmity. Rewards discourage those who do well but not exactly quite well enough, according to some standard or other, which may be arbitrary. Rewards create pettiness. Rewards encourage people to work separately and not as a team. After all, why in hell should I help you when you're just going to screw me by winning?

    Some say that none of us alone is as stupid as all of us together, but unless you're the boss, or wearing a suit today, none of us alone is as smart as all of us. Can't be. So rewards make the business more stupid. And less competitive. (Irony alert!)

  3. Rewards ignore root causes. Got someone who's not quite doing well enough lately? Whack him with a stick, or if you're feeling really ornery, dangle a shiny trinket in front of his nose.

    Don't ask if his mother died, his kid is now a crack addict, or his wife just ran off with the babysitter. That shiny, twirling thingy will do the trick. And if it doesn't you can always fire his sorry ass. Who cares if he's done a great job for the past 10 years and knows the business better than you ever will?

    Rewards are blunt instruments, do not analyze causes or other messy things, and are simpleminded, and that's what we want, right?

  4. Rewards discourage taking risks. No one wants to screw up the possibility of getting that reward.

    So people will wait to hear what the ground rules are. They will want to be told what to do. And exactly no one will do something completely unexpected. You know, the kind of thing that could move their company into the next century like, oh, 50 years ahead of everyone else.

    Short-term goals, that's the ticket. And with a reward system in place, every activity becomes only another obstacle. There are no longer any opportunities, only hurdles to kick out of the way while you shove your way to the front.

  5. Rewards kill enthusiasm, even for things that people would do just for the fun of it.

    One group of children, told that they had to play with chalk before they could get to the felt markers began to hate drawing with chalk. The other group, told the opposite, began to hate felt markers. Children told nothing at all go nuts having fun with either one, or both at once.

    Any activity seen as a means to a reward becomes distasteful, strange as it sounds. Researchers keep finding this result over and over again, no matter how hard they try to find that rewards work.

    Rewards come to be seen as controlling, and everyone hates being controlled. People feel threatened, watched, constantly judged. As though they're forced to work only to meet deadlines, to be ordered around, and to be competitive toward others when really they want the opposite.

The best amount of competition in your company is none at all...competition itself -- which simply means requiring one person or group to fail in order that another can succeed -- is inherently counterproductive. Similarly, I’m not offering a 'soft' argument against competition, basing my objection solely on its destructiveness to us as human beings. I'm saying that competition also makes no sense from the perspective of the bottom line. It holds people back from doing their best. (Alfie Kohn


Money and goods are only one form of pay. Call it "official" or "external" pay. This is a baseline, a minimum-level compensation that comes with a job. Money is compensation for giving up part of your life and doing what you don't especially want to, what isn't inherently meaningful to you, or for doing things that aren't intrinsically rewarding, or for what is too hard or too frustrating to bother with otherwise.
When people are asked what's most important to them, financial concerns show up well behind such factors as interesting work or good people to work with. For example, in a large survey conducted by the Families and Work Institute, "salary/wage" ranked 16th on a list of 20 reasons for taking a job. (Alfie Kohn
But there is another form of pay. Call it "unofficial" or "internal" pay. We'll look at this next time. This kind of pay is what you get for doing what is worthwhile. To you. As a real person. And not as an office machine.


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