The Individual Bonus - A Simple But Stupid Motivational Medicine

Bjarte Bogsnes
Written by Bjarte Bogsnes August 25, 2018

One of the most damaging management practices in business today is the individual bonus – “do this and get that”, a practice that now has also found its way into the public sector. There are two main specious reasons why organisations operate with individual bonuses, but they are not related.

The first is a market-reason; “We have to be competitive”. I fully accept this one, but there are many ways of being competitive. Individual bonus does not have to be on the list. The Beyond Budgeting pioneer Handelsbanken has had no problems whatsoever with recruiting great people without offering individual bonuses. This is true even in the UK, where it is the fastest growing bank in that market, and thus requires a lot of new staff.

The second reason is quite different; “Individual bonus is both good and necessary for motivating people”. This is where it all goes wrong.

One of the most damaging management practices in business today is the individual bonus – “do this and get that”.
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The persistent myth of employee motivation

I can hardly think of any other area where there are bigger gaps between what business believes in and what research documents. There are fifty years of research with very clear conclusions, telling us that individual bonus can be highly effective under the following circumstances;

  • when there is little motivation in the job itself,
  • where measuring is easy,
  • and where quantity is more important than quality.

So, for picking carrots, simple sales work (maybe) and similar jobs, it does motivate.

But, when we move to more complex “knowledge” work, money loses it motivating power to purpose, mastery, autonomy and belonging;

  • the feeling of being part of something big, bold and important,
  • the joy of getting better at something,
  • the freedom of not being micro-managed,
  • and the power of teamwork and togetherness,

are all more powerful motivators than that bag of money.

There are fifty years of research with very clear conclusions on individual bonuses: I can hardly think of any other area where there are bigger gaps between what business believes in and what research documents.
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The common denominator

What they all have in common (beyond the fact that they all come for free) is leadership. They all require good and solid leadership efforts, which of course is more demanding than dangling carrots in front of people.

I have personally been on individual bonus schemes for more than twenty years. Of course I enjoy the money, but if someone believes that this is what motivates me, they haven’t done their homework.

I have, however, no problem at all with common bonus schemes, on the contrary. A shared scheme with everybody on-board, driven for instance by company performance, has nothing to do with dangling carrots. They can still motivate, but more indirectly through a common recognition where fairness is key.

First signs of improvement

I am optimistic, though. There are positive signs out there. The Nordic insurance giant If has just abolished individual bonuses in their customer center, in favor of a common bonus scheme and somewhat higher base salaries. The results?

Better employee and customer satisfaction, and improved business performance.

Even the management consultants seem to be waking up. It began with recommending their clients to move away from the traditional performance reviews and ratings, and making the link to pay more assessment based. Several of the big firms have actually done this themselves, and it is not always the case that they take their own advice…

Written by Bjarte Bogsnes
Bjarte Bogsnes
Chairman of Beyond Budgeting Roundtable (BBRT) and the author of “Implementing Beyond Budgeting – Unlocking the Performance Potential“.
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