How to Increase Trust in Organizations

Increasing Trust Within Your OrganizationI was grocery shopping Saturday. It was 2PM, 96 degrees out – pretty hot for New Jersey – and I was in the checkout line. The cashier had started sliding my purchases through the register, when suddenly I noticed a bag left over from the customer before me. She had left and gone to her car.

The woman doing the bagging noticed it at the same time. She grabbed the lady’s bag and dashed out into the heat. She was making pretty good time for a woman in her 60s, and we all could see her out the window as she finally caught up, handed over the bag, and started back.

Then the cashier suddenly exclaimed, “Omigosh, she left two other bags as well!” Looking quickly at me and the woman behind me in line, she said, “Will you two please excuse me for just a minute? I’ll be right back.” And she too took off after the forgetful lady, with two bags in tow. She was in her 20s, and made very good time.

It occurred to me I could slide a few groceries over the line and into my bag and escape without paying. (I don’t do such things, but the idea did show up in my mind). Then the elderly woman behind me in line said, “You know, I don’t mind one little bit waiting for someone who’s doing a good deed like that.”  Neither did I, I said, neither did I.

When the cashier and the bagging lady came back, we both complimented them, and they blushed a bit and said thank you. (I sent a complimentary email to ShopRite’s HQ later that night with the store number, employee name and cash register number, all of which were on the receipt).

So my question is: how do you get employees to behave like that? I mean generously, based on principle, willing to take certain risks, confident to act in the moment. How do you keep from getting sullen employees who talk about “career-limiting moves,” who won’t lift a hand or take a risk to help another?

How Do You Induce Values-based Behavior in an Organization?

Earlier that same day, I had the opportunity to briefly visit a Sears store, a Macy’s store, and a Bed Bath and Beyond unit. Sears was awful – employees keeping their distance from customers, 100 feet away, pretending not to notice. Macy’s was a little better, but still sullen, under-staffed, and radiating not-helpfulness.

BB&B was a huge contrast. Several employees, busy doing other things, asked me if they could help. I asked two for help, and they both went out of their way to do so.

How does this happen?

The standard answer in most businesses, I’m afraid, is to focus on the wrong things: typically  incentives, communications, and procedures.

The more I see of business, the more convinced I become that the single most powerful way to create values-based behavior is none of the above – it is to do it yourself, and to talk about it with others.

The Usual Suspects

Incentives appeal to the individual’s rational economic or ego-satisfying needs. Fine and dandy, but if you’re trying to incent selfless behavior, the concept of rewards is just a tad self-contradictory.

There is probably (I’m guessing) more money spent on communications than on any other “solution” to issues of trust, ethical behavior, and customer-focus. Companies love to pronounce their values to their customers, and reinforce them internally in posters, newsletters, and blogs. The problem is, impersonal companies communicating about personal relationships is some kind of category mistake.

And procedures? The whole point of values-based behavior is that the employee extrapolates from principles in the moment. Rehearsing and drilling doesn’t help extrapolate values, it replaces that process with rote memory.

Role Modeling

Think of how we learn from our parents. Think of the sports or public figures we admire (there are still a few). In all cases, we are influenced by what they do – not by what they say they will do, or did do, or wish they’d done.

When it comes to values, I suspect BB&B has leaders in their operations organization who both walk the talk, and talk it too. People who lead by example, and who are convinced that values like customer assistance are valid only if kept sharpened by use.

I suspect Angie the cashier at ShopRite was hired partly because she exhibited values. I suspect that the folks managing her store make a point of being helpful and customer-focused, and engage customers about values like that. I suspect it didn’t occur to her that she shouldn’t take the risk of leaving her cash drawer and my groceries unattended – because her leadership would have trusted their customers and done the same thing – and she knew it.

We have overdone the behavioral, incentives-based, needs-maximizing best practices model of human resources. We have under-estimated the human power of changing humans. After all, the business of relating to other people is personal.

Trusted Transactions, or Trusted Relationships?

Justice Potter Stewart once remarked, with respect to pornography, that it was virtually impossible to define it, but, "I know it when I see it."

Ditto for trust. It’s both a verb and a noun. Its objects are implied and contextual, as in "I trust my dog with my life–but not with my ham sandwich."

Increasingly, we need to make explicit another dual-meaning of trust. We trust relationships, and we trust transactions.  I trust John—to have my best interests at heart. I trust eBay—to create trustworthy transactions with strangers. It does not follow that I trust an eBay customer to go out on a date with my daughter.

Much of the public dialogue today confuses these two distinctions. Is it Congress that people don’t trust? Or is it members of Congress who themselves are considered untrustworthy? To the average voter, it’s a distinction without a difference. I suspect the inability to tease them apart is itself a source of anger. But if we fail to separate them, we doom ourselves not only to nasty public discourse, but to failed solutions.

Trusted Relationships in the Mortgage Business.

In 1970, the US mortgage industry was still adequately described by the perennial Frank Capra Christmas movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, president of the Bedford Falls Savings & Loan. Bailey (for he and the company were inseparable) made loans to people he knew personally.

The bank’s depositors were Bailey’s friends and neighbors. The depositors were also the borrowers; likewise, the employees. The loans stayed on the S&L’s books, presumably to term. Those who took out mortgages had no intention of doing anything other than paying them off, with burn-the-mortgage parties at the end.  No moral hazard here.

This was relationship trust. The strength lay in personal ties, cemented over time. A man’s word was his bond, and anyway you knew where he lived. His reputation was everything, at least until it wasn’t. Relationship trust served business and society well.

But relationship trust was about the only kind we had, and it had its limits.

Transactional trust in George Bailey’s world was shallow and fragile indeed. The S&L was at risk of being forced out of business by a single competitor, the evil Mr. Potter. It was at risk of the low-tech deposit processes of Uncle Billy. Most importantly, it was at risk of a bank run. It was a good thing George Bailey worked the relationship trust game well, for he had precious little else to depend on.

Trusted Transactions in the Mortgage Business.

In 1995, Dwight Crane, Robert C. Merton and others published The Global Financial System: a Functional Perspective. A masterpiece of what sociologists knew as “functionalism,” this book laid out the case for transactional trust, viewing the mortgage business as one part of a complex and, ideally, integrated financial system.

In the chapter on mortgages, they ran down the characteristics of a system you could trust. It would have markets—markets for deposits, markets for mortgages, markets for loan originations. The book listed the costs of not having a systemically integrated system: risk of meltdowns, differential pricing within very narrow geographic regions, low liquidity, gross inefficiencies.

In short, George Bailey’s relationship-driven-trust was too risky, too costly, too uncreative and too unresponsive. Above all, it was too expensive. Consumers–the would-be purchasers of mortgages—were subjected to higher prices than necessary, driving up the cost of home ownership, and therefore driving down the economic livelihood of those seeking the American dream. 

You simply could not trust such a system, the good professors opined.  “It’s a Wonderful Life” was now half a century old. George Bailey was quaint. No one noticed that only one year before the 1995 book, contributor Robert C. Merton became a Board Member of a little hedge fund called Long-Term Capital Management L.P.  

In business, Progress was synonymous with all these terms: systemic, low-cost, efficient, market-based, liquidity. No one was about to cast doubt on the important and positive nature of all these terms.  The academics and wunderkind of Wall Street were creating institutions you could trust.

The new trust was almost entirely cast in terms of systems and transactions. Transactions replaced relationships. Where markets couldn’t handle the job, models could.

In a few short decades, the “trust” pendulum swung from a man’s word to the solidity of a system. We went from high personal trust to high systemic trust–each extreme without the moderating influence of the other.

We Need Rich Trust.

The transactional revolution in mortgage banking indeed delivered on most of its systemic promises. Markets were established, costs were lowered, liquidity was raised. But it all, as we know, ended very badly.

The confusion over trust went way beyond semantic. Alan Greenspan himself in 2008 famously said:

"I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms."

In other words, Greenspan thought that transactional trust would have the same sort of reputational bias that relationship trust had. He was, sadly for all of us, mistaken. 

Transactional trust absent relationship trust had its own internal seeds of destruction. The absence of long-term relationships was crystallized in the Wall Street acronym IBGYBG—I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone, let’s do the deal. Just as personal trust doesn’t scale easily, so transactional trust doesn’t easily foster ethical behavior.  

George Bailey wasn’t wrong, he just had no system. The professors weren’t wrong, they just assumed relationships. The truth is: we can’t afford just one form of trust or another, we need a rich mixture of both.

Well Beyond Mortgages.

The mortgage industry is but one example. As recently described in a New Yorker article on the US Senate’s inability to develop energy legislation, the political process has become as ugly and dysfunctional as anything involving collateralized mortgages. Lifetime politicians are continually compromising principles and relationships for another shot at enhancing their power.

Yet they are not wholly to blame. They are caught up in a system which insists on money and soundbites, with ever shortening cycles of time. The press, caught in its own compressed cycle, competes with reality TV and blogs to capture the public’s insatiable desire for more intensity, faster. The Shirley Sherrod case—a grievous rush to judgment for the sake of ratings—dramatically showed how compromised the press has become. And another case—a Bloomberg news reporter’s bizarre attack on Prudential—shows how blasé we’ve become about it.

And the electorate, reflecting it all, ends up exerting single-issue us-vs-them pressure on its own.


The polls are basically right: we do have a crisis of trust. But what crisis? It is not just a failure of morality. We cannot fix it solely by getting back to ‘family values,’ or seeking out leaders of impeccable morality. Those are, in fact, necessary conditions, but they’re not sufficient.

On the other hand, those who insist that the system is sound, it just needs tweaking, are dead wrong as well. This is not a matter of incentives needing adjustment. This is not a matter solely of transparency in markets. Those too are necessary conditions—but not sufficient.

We live in an interconnected world: transactional trust is critical for us to do live a life built on global commerce without it. 

At the same time, there is no social structure or business process that can work without humans. There is no lock that can’t be picked, no code that can’t be broken. There is no inhuman system that can’t be perverted by humans. 

Trusted transactions? Or trusted relationships? Yes. We need ‘em both.   

Carrots and Sticks and Money

From VIP (very interesting person) Randi comes this story:

I was head of HR for a 50-person entrepreneurial startup. The CEO—Joe–was a proven big company corporate manager, and a strong believer in traditional management theories like pay for performance, measurement, and financial rewards. I  think they’re tricky, and over-rated.

Once we had a major online product launch, culminating on a Monday. Several folks in the IT group pulled a 48-hour all-nighter to get it all done. We pulled it off, and went live Monday morning without a glitch.

As we all celebrated, Joe decided to introduce his newest motivational tool—spot cash rewards. He went around, quietly handing out fifty-dollar bills to selected people, saying how much he appreciated their contribution to this team effort. 

Some were delighted. Then he gave one to a maintenance crewmember as he came from cleaning the men’s room. The guy’s face quickly reflected two emotions in rapid succession: WTF? And then ‘lemme get outta here before this sucker figures out who I am.’

Joe was a little discomfited. He then went up to one of the key IT folks who had spent the entire weekend in the office, approaching him with a big smile and handing him the $50 with a pat on the back. 

This time the look was different: more like incredulity, as in, “I do 48 hours straight no-pay overtime and you figure I’m worth a dollar an hour? Same as the guy doing his cleaning job on his regular shift?”

I said to Joe later, “now do you see what I meant about carrots and sticks?”

Too many managers automatically assume that carrots and sticks are the primary motivators of worker performance. At a macro level, it’s even worse; TV pundits and economists all overtly say things like “people are motivated by economic opportunity,” using that to justify the dampening impacts of raising marginal tax rates, for example.

It’s just not particularly true. Study after study suggest not only that extrinsic rewards are not only less powerful than intrinsic rewards, but even that the usual “soft” rewards (praise, recognition) are not tops in the motivation department.

An interesting recent study based on 12,000 diary entries suggests that the largest motivator of people is almost absurdly obvious: the sense of making progress in their work. A feeling of progress trumps all the others.

Carrots and sticks have their proponents, and their place; but as Randi suggests—they’re overrated.

Do You Trust a Robot? To Do What?

Do you trust a robot?

Well, you might say, it depends: that depends on who did the programming. 

We do use the word ‘trust’ that way. We can ‘trust’ a robot to do the same thing, over and over. It doesn’t have bad motives, bad days, or bad blood. It does what it’s programmed to do.

But we would never say we’d trust a robot to “do the right thing,” or to “keep its owner’s best interest at heart,” or to “have a conscience.” That would just be silly. A robot is a machine. And silicon is not protein.

Yet much thinking about social trust amounts to nothing more than programming the robot. Got problems on Wall Street? Tweak the incentives. Oil drillers behaving badly? Rewrite the programmer rules of the MMS.

Much of that’s necessary. But it’s not sufficient. What’s to be done about all the non-robotic parts of society?

Sister Rettinger Uses Non-robotic Trust to Shame a Thief into Restitution

Writing programs for robotic trust is pretty simple. Go read one of the economists or psychologists who boil down all human behavior to the consistent pursuit of self-interest, and borrow their formula. Define a few processes, insert rules and conditional reward/pain payoffs, and voila—robotic trust.

But that won’t explain Pittsburgh’s Sister Lynn Rettinger: or the thief she undid with her voice:

Rettinger didn’t even have to break out a ruler for man who reached into an open window and stole a wallet from a car on Tuesday. She just needed the voice honed by nearly 50 years in Catholic schools.

After a teacher saw the man swipe the wallet, the 5-foot-3 principal of Sacred Heart Elementary School in the Shadyside neighborhood went outside and firmly told the man, "you need to give me what you have."

The unknown thief turned over the wallet, apologized and walked away.

Rettinger says she merely said what she says to students when she knows they have something they shouldn’t.

Let’s be clear: the Sister called out a stranger for misbehavior: and he responded. While strangers, they shared a moral code. While he was a lawbreaker and she just a little old woman, she trusted that he would not harm her, and that he would do the right thing.   And so he did.

The rules of interpersonal conduct—or morality, or trust, or conscience—are often considered to be far ‘softer’ than the rules governing physics, or programs governing robots. But Sr. Rettinger had enough confidence to calmly place a bet on their power. And she was right.

There is a power that exists between human beings, a binding web of mutuality, that we have systematically denied—to our own detriment.

5th Pillar in India Challenges Bribe-takers to Cease their Demands

Vijay Anand, chairman of 5th Pillar, has printed up over a million zero-rupee notes. The notes are to be given by poor people to officials who try to extort them for basic services.

When confronted with a demand for a bribe, the citizen offers up a zero-rupee note. This act turns out to have serious, positive consequences. In one case, “a corrupt official in a district in Tamil Nadu was so frightened on seeing the zero rupee note that he returned all the bribe money he had collected for establishing a new electricity connection back to the no longer compliant citizen.”

When engineered properly, the power of the force that binds people to each other can overwhelm the selfish power that economists presume drives us all.

Selfishness Is Over-rated: Trust is Under-Rated

I’m getting tired of hearing it cited routinely, over and over, as if it were self-evident, that people are selfish and will behave badly unless stopped or otherwise incented, especially if they work for companies.

They are not. People are vastly flawed and far from perfection; but they are also selfless and capable of great acts of generosity.

Dr. Robert Hoyk lists a number of ways we can think about increasing trust, many of which don’t involve behaviors and incentives. David Gebler suggests that culture drives trust , which seems perfectly obvious when you just put it that way. Then we catch wind of a headline and we’re off to the behavioral sanctions route once again.

Programming the robot; what does it get you? The same thing, over and over.   There’s a lot to like about dependability and reliability. Just don’t claim that’s all there is to trust.

When a Win-Win…Is Not

Special thanks to Noelle who participated in a Being a Trusted Advisor program Charlie and I led recently. Noelle told a similar story in class that was the inspiration for this post.

I had an experience with US Airways recently that shed light on the difference between what I’ll call a Sears Win-Win* and a Real Win-Win. In short, the difference boils down to incentives.

The Story of an On-Time Departure

It seems that US Airways is placing a lot of emphasis on on-time departures these days.  Works for me! As I was getting settled on a recent flight, I noticed that the flight attendant working my section was particularly smiley and up-beat, urging everyone to get buckled up and ready to go in a most effervescent way.

I acknowledged her demeanor as she paused near my row. "We’re working hard for an on-time departure today and it looks like we’re going to make it!" she beamed.

"Wow," I said, a bit taken aback by the commitment and the positivity.

Then she added, "And there’s $50 in it for me if we leave the gate on time!"

(Apparently, US Airways implemented a new program in 2009 where employees below the director level can earn up to $150 per month in incentive pay when they achieve top-three rankings for on-time performance, mishandled baggage reports or customer complaint numbers.)

"Oh," I said.

And then we left on time…and arrived on time.

Why Motives Matter

On the surface, this sure looks like a win-win: I won because we left and arrived on time; the flight attendant won because she got her bonus. The corporate incentive program worked! Or did it?

I say it didn’t. Not really. It clearly achieved a desirable result (me arriving on time). And that result came with–what’s the word I’m looking for–baggage (me feeling like chopped liver). Which is why I call this a Sears Win-Win, not a Real Win-Win. If we look throught the lens of the Trust Equation, my friendly flight attendant’s Self Orientation was sky high. And therein lies the problem: the source of her interest was her own benefit, not mine.

How Do We Make the Ending Happy?

Here are some conclusions I draw from this story:

  • Incentives are great. And they’re not enough
  • When one or more parties in a business transaction leaves that transaction without feeling cared about, it’s a loss, not a win.
  • Motives aren’t only spoken; they’re exuded
  • Real Win-Win’s are motivated by caring, not by numbers.

Which begs the question, how do you incent–and incite–someone to care?

Any answers out there?

*Reference courtesy of Frank Zappa

Applying Business Best Practices to Relationships

Metrics money managementI ran across a blog the other day singing the importance of relationships in business. Fair enough.

As I recall, it started by saying:

“Let’s start with some undeniable facts. What gets measured gets managed.” ‘Uh oh,’ I thought, ‘I’m gonna have to write about this one.’

All right, let’s trot out the whole set of logical fallacies.

1. If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it
2. If you can measure it, you can manage it
3. If you can’t manage it, it’s because you’re not measuring it
4. If you can manage it, it’s because you are measuring it.

Not one of those is true.

First, there is management by fear and intimidation; by shared values; by guilt-tripping; by walking around; by praise; and so on. None of which require measurement.

Second, the act of measuring per se does nothing to cause “management” to happen.

Of course, just because something is illogical doesn’t mean people don’t assign meaning to it. But why do so many people insist so strongly on connecting management and measurement?

I can suggest two reasons.

Go back to “what gets measured, gets managed.” What that really means is, “I’m the kind of person who, when someone measures me, falls into line and behaves according to the desired metrics.”

This view is the choice of the one being measured; it’s not a trait of the measurer, nor an outcome of the act of measuring. It’s a rather passive choice by the measuree: it doesn’t require much thinking, and doesn’t invite challenge.

Which is exactly what most managers intend measurement to do: to communicate desires from boss to employee, in narrow, quantitative, often financial, terms.

But most of all, “what gets measured gets managed” reflects a belief that measurement is good, and that more measurement is better. Break it down to the elemental levels, let’s really manage this puppy.

Well, let’s test-drive that idea. Go ask your wife how you’re doing as a spouse (or reverse, etc.). On a scale of 1-10, please.

Now, that might get you into a pretty good conversation. It might even be so good that your actual performance as a spouse improves as a result.

Suppose further that you work in a company that believes “what gets measured gets managed,” and decide to apply this “obvious fact” to your home life as well. So you ask the wife the same question next month. Scale of 1-10 again, please.

Your spouse says, “didn’t we just have this conversation a few weeks ago?”

“Why, yes,” you say, “and it was really useful, and I want to be an even better spouse, so I figured I’d starting taking regular metrics readings so I can establish a benchmark performance level and track my improvement. I learned that technique at work. Do you think monthly reports on my spousal performance will be enough? Maybe I should ask you for weekly ratings?  And let’s be s ure to talk about rewards for achieving and exceeding my metrics.”

Now, if your spouse has any relationship skills, and any self-image to speak of, you’re gonna be sleeping on the sofa for a while.

And while explaining these new arrangements to you, you may hear something like, “and by the way, thanks for ruining that great conversation we had a few weeks ago, because now I see you never meant it, you were just in it for your own ego-gratification, and I feel like an idiot because I actually thought you might have cared, but now I see not only are you a jerk, but I deluded myself, and I now don’t even trust my own assessment skills, I was so far off in even thinking we had a good thing going, now I feel even worse, etc.”

This is the emotional equivalent of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. You have just proven that the act of measurement can alter the thing being measured. (And by the way, who cares that you meant well, anyway?)

I have a friend who works at GE designing sophisticated fluid control measurement tools used in the oil industry. Crude oil doesn’t much care how often or how precisely you measure it. Unfortunately, spouses do.  As do people in general.

Which is why the unthinking, inane concatenations of measurement and management so often fail when applied to people.

Best practices aren’t universal. The management of capital and hydrocarbon resources doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the management of human “resources,” aka people.

Fixing Executive Compensation: Social Engineering, or Ethics?

A little over two years ago I wrote a post called The Next Big Trust Scandal—suggesting it would be Executive Compensation.

I may have gotten that one right. Think of the fuss lately about corporate junkets (most recently, Northern Trust) , CEOs on private jets, etc. And of course, Obama’s proposal to cap executive compensation.

Which brings us to yesterday’s Wall Street Journal Op-Ed page, where two respected academics (Judith Samuelson, Lynn Stout) write “Are Executives Paid Too Much?

They get a few things quite right—and one big thing quite wrong.

They suggest an epidemic of short-termism is responsible not only for compensation excesses, but for value destruction in the economy as a whole. In this they are surely right—or, to be accurate, I completely agree with them.

They also offer a simple, practical and powerful suggestion:

“Top executives who receive equity-based compensation should be prohibited from using derivatives and other hedging techniques to offload the risk that goes along with equity compensation, and instead be required to continue holding a significant portion of their equity for a period beyond their tenure.”

Well done.  But now for that Other Thing. The heart of their problem statement is:

“Our economy didn’t get into this mess because executives were paid too much. Rather, they were paid too much for doing the wrong things…. The system was perfectly designed to produce the results we have now. To get different results, we need a different system.”

No. The problem extends well beyond “the system,” and it won’t get fixed at the same level it was caused.

We cannot let business off the hook by claiming the rat maze was incorrectly designed, the cheese was of the wrong variety, or was hidden in the wrong corners. The solution does not lie (solely, or even mainly) in tweaking financial incentives, even in shifting timeframes.

The solution to egregious excesses—and to a lot more—simply must include a healthy dose of personal accountability for doing the right thing. A conscience. An inkling that society has expectations, and the power to demand that they be met. For lack of a better term, ethics.

Samuelson/Stout’s three solutions—metrics, communications and compensation structures—don’t include a simple social demand to behave decently.

What has to happen, I think, is not behavioral engineering, but shock therapy.

I am not being naïve here. In fact, I think they may be. The verbs in their recommendations are “we need new ways to measure,” “must change the ways they reward,” “need to ensure.”

The academics and the exec comp consultants are not going to force change. In fact, by treating the issue as a strictly technical one, solvable by just tweaking metrics and rules, they are actively complicit in the continued non-ethical framing of the problem.

Force is what’s needed. CEOs and Boards don’t do things because an academic says they should. Radical politicians have it right when they say, “power comes only to those who take it.”

My suggestion is for a lot of people to get really ticked off. The authors may deride Obama’s solution, but a president proposing policy exerts a lot of pressure. Columnists, bloggers, authors, short-sellers, reformers—get angry. Shareholder activists, get active. Demand accountability and decency.

As Alfie Kohn says, “monetary incentives work. They incent people to get more monetary incentives.” If we believe the only reason corporate people behave the way they do is to maximize their own personal bank accounts, then we will get nothing but more rats, moving in slightly different directions, more and more firmly grounded in nothing beyond their rat-ness.

Ironically, author Lynn Stout may understand this well, having recently written a paper called Taking Conscience Seriously. It looks good. One hopes she will allow her thoughts on conscience to more deeply infect her writings on altering corporate compensation.



When Incentives Backfire

In business, certain ideas have come to be treated as received wisdom.

One of them is “align goals and incentives.”

It sounds dirt-simple. If you want to encourage or incent people to do certain things rather than other things, then align their incentives with those things. Reward them for doing the desirable, punish (or do not reward) for doing the undesirable.

Praise the child for helping, discipline the child for misbehaving. Say “bad dog” for jumping on the sofa, say “good dog” and give a treat for heeling.

Increase the commission on the profitable product, decrease it on the lower-margin ones. Give the CEO stock options to incent him or her to increase the stock price. And so forth.

But this idea has an exploding-cigar component to it. In fact, it can be downright destructive.

In the recent Republican Presidential debates, one candidate suggested, with an “ain’t it obvious” kind of tone, that part of the answer to the US health care problem is to incent providers based on outcomes. We should pay doctors and insurance companies for improving people’s health, then they’ll work to improve patients’ health, thereby cutting health costs.

I mean, ain’t it obvious?

Look a little closer. It suggests that, as a doctor, the most attractive patients will be overweight smokers—because I can quickly improve their health. And I will work hard to get them to diet and quit smoking quickly, because I get paid more for showing fast results.

On one level, this is very good. It’s a form of social triage—focus on the highest improvement rates possible. Obesity and smoking are major health problems. What’s the problem?

The trade-off is e subtle shift in motivation for doctors. If everything goes through the money filter, where’s the motivation that keeps interns doing absurd things to their circadian rhythms for so long? What happens to bedside manner?

What happens to any sense of the purpose of medicine—which, since roughly Hippocrates, has been largely based on healing people? It gets replaced by the same motivation that drives MBAs to seek private equity jobs.

Not persuaded? OK, let’s move to religion.

What’s the mission of your local church, synagogue, mosque? Probably some form of “worship the lord and do good deeds.” Lets apply the incentives logic.

It suggests churches et al should do a religio-ethical baseline competency assessment before letting you join (“how many of the Ten Commandments would you say you break in an average month?”). Then measurements should be taken periodically to see how you are improving.

(I’ll just keep using “church” here as shorthand, please infer the intended political correctness).

If your minister/priest/rabbi shows good results, then his or her market value (salary) should increase.

Church by church results should be published, so that would-be members can make informed decisions about which church will give them the highest spiritual/ethical ROI on the least amount of invested time or payments.

If you’re a slow improver, then churches would be incented to dump you as an incorrigible recidivist (formerly known as “sinner”)—basically, an unprofitable case.

Consider tithing—the giving of 10% of one’s income to the religion. Let’s apply incentives. What’s in it for me? Maybe, if you tithe more, you get more back!  Sort of like frequent flyer miles, or volume discounts. If you tithe 12%, you get the superbowl tickets; 13%, the big Hawaii trip. And suppose you really demonstrate your holiness by taking a vow of poverty? Wow, that’s the big reward—a day’s free shopping at Neiman Marcus, no limits.

How about Boy Scouts helping that little old lady across the street? What’s in it for me? How much to escort you across, old lady? A nickel? What century you livin’ in?  Fuggedaboudit!

If you haven’t heard of Alfie Kohn, let me recommend him to you. Mainly a child educator theorist, he’s also written fascinatingly about the fallacy of incentives. As he puts it, “incentives work very well. They incent people to get more incentives.”

His key concept? Emphasizing extrinsic incentives—i.e. “if you do this, you’ll get that”—is responsible for destroying intrinsic incentives.

His killer example: a study of children playing. Researchers uncovered their favorite game—then offered them rewards for playing it.

The kids then lost interest in the game.