Politics and Work: On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping For B

by Matthew Stollak on Wednesday, November 7, 2012

One of the classic pieces of management literature is Steven Kerr's 1975 (updated in 1995) piece, " On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B."  Kerr's central point is that the behavior that is often desired is not necessarily the one that is rewarded.

Kerr highlights a number of examples:
*War - In World War II, soldiers did not return home until the war was won.  In Vietnam, soldiers had the same goal - to get home - but that reward was earned when the tour of duty was over, not with a victory

*Health care - As costs continue to rise, we want doctors to look at providing health care more efficiently and effectively.  However, physicians over test and overserve, perhaps in fear of malpractice suits.  Similarly, what incentive is there as consumers to keep costs down and demand less testing, particularly when they bear so little of the costs with insurance.

*Universities - The job responsibilities for a professor are to teach and advise students, conduct research/engage in scholarship, and serve the community.  While the student probably values the first option most highly, the route to tenure and promotion is through successful research.  Hence, when time is tight, the astute professor will dedicate his or her time to research at the expense of quality teaching.  Further, mediocre teaching is rarely punished.

Which brings us to this week's topic - politics.  Kerr writes:

The American citizenry supposedly wants its candidates for public office put forth operative goals, making their proposed programs "perfectly clear," specifying sources and uses of funds, etc.  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.....Instead, however, the American voter typically punishes (withholds suport from) candidates who frankly discuss where the money will come from, rewards politicians who speak only of official goals, but hopes that candidates (despite the reward system) will discuss the issues operatively.

Kerr's words were prescient for 2012.  How often did either party give specifics on how they would fix entitlements, how tax cuts will balance the budget, etc.?  For the first time in ages, a major party candidate limited the amount of tax information made available to the public. 

And what happened when candidates got a little too real on abortion?  Ask Todd Akin in Missouri and Richard Mourdock.

But, does this create ominous overtones for future elections?  Is Romney being punished for not being more forthright with regard to his taxes? Or, will we see greater obfuscation on the part of candidates from here on out as they see what happened to Akin and Mourdock?

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