PMean: The problem with incentivizing

I came across a question, “How does your institution incentivize researchers to write more grants?” that was posted a while ago. I felt it was too late to respond directly, but I did want to mention something in my blog about this. “Incentivize” is one of those awful words that used to be a noun (incentive) but has been changed to a verb to make it sound more trendy. That’s something to dislike from the very start, but I have an even greater gripe about incentivizing.

The problem with incentives has been long documented in the literature. Alfie Kohn summarized much of this in a 1995 book, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes. There’s a newer book out (2011) that I have not read yet that has much the same message: Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.

The problem with incentives and other rewards is not that they never work. They do work in some settings, and getting the pay structure wrong is a motivational disaster. The problem with incentives is that they don’t seem to help much with the complex tasks associated today’s work, especially grants. In fact, sometimes the incentives can serve as a distraction and cause a decline in productivity.

So what do you do if incentives don’t work. Dr. Kohn suggests that the three keys are collaboration, content, and choice. People enjoy work that is collaborative, so try to work on encouraging teamwork rather than rewarding individual performance. People also enjoy work that they perceive as meaningful, so make sure they understand how the type of work they do relates to making the organization better. Finally, give people, to the greatest extent possible, the ability to choose how they approach their work.

Daniel Pink has a similar message: you should stress

“autonomy-the desire to direct our own lives, mastery-the urge to get better and better at something that matters, purpose-the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

I hesitate to summarize more of Mr. Pink’s book based on just a few excerpts and an interview on NPR, but it sure sounds a lot like what Dr. Kohn is saying.

I’d like to add one more thing to the list. Often the problems in a workplace is that there are too few incentives. For grant writing, there are already lots of incentives in place. The problem is that there are too many disincentives. If you are in charge of an organization, look carefully at all the roadblocks, hurdles, and impediments that keeping people from writing more grants. Do your best to remove all these disincentives before you plan to add new incentives.

So what are the disincentives to writing research grants? It depends a lot on the organization, but many of us do not know how to write well. So access to training is important.

Another problem is the administrative barriers to cross administrative lines. I’ve done a lot of research with people from Kansas University Medical Center, which is just a short drive from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, but sometimes it feels like the two institutions are worlds apart. Part of it is the state line the you have to cross to get from one place to the other, but part of it is just the tendency of any organization to think about issues from an institutional perspective rather than a broader perspective.

Finally, there are lots of rules and regulations that make little sense other than to serve as barriers to conducting research. One regulation that I find troubling is that many of the grant opportunities are unavailable to part-time employees. You can try to make a rationalization for this restriction, but it really just is a way of punishing those of us who need the flexibility of part-time work because of child care issues.

Now, the problems with disincentives to producing research are not just at my organization. It’s a problem at every place I’ve ever worked and I’m guessing it is more or less a universal problem. But if someone at UMKC asked me “How can we get more research done here?” my response would be “Stop punishing your successful researchers.” It’s a bit harsh but it would get the people in power, I hope, to start thinking about all the disincentives that are already in place.

One issue that Mr. Pink brought out in his NPR interview is that organizations look at incentive programs as a way to solve their problems because they are easy to implement. It’s the easiest thing in the world to throw money at a problem to try to solve it. But giving people autonomy is hard work. Showing that the work that your employees do has a bigger purpose is even more difficult. But if you want to be successful in getting your organization to do something important, you have to do the hard work.