As the G20 starts to get serious about curbing executive bonuses, we can expect banking lobbyists to get more strident in their attempts to resist these incursions into their cosy remuneration practices. This has, in fact, already begun. In a recent example, Deutsche Bank Chief Executive Josef Ackermann was resorting to cliché, claiming that “the war for talent is in full swing” (we can blame McKinsey & Co for unleashing these weasel words on an unsuspecting world). Expect to hear more.
Whether it is bankers defending bonuses or politicians frowning that bonuses contributed to excess risk-taking, what rarely seems to be questioned is whether or not bonuses actually work. That is, used as an incentive for employees, do they actually result in better performance. In most discussions, it is taken for granted that they do work, but that unwelcome side-effects can also emerge, in the form of excessive risk-taking.
However, writer Dan Pink recently challenged this basic assumption in a TED talk in August this year. He pointed to years of experimental research which suggest that while financial incentives may be very good in maximising productivity for simple tasks, they can actually result in worse performance for more complex tasks that require problem-solving or creativity. Rather than “extrinsic” motivators like financial rewards, Pink and others argue that “intrinsic” motivators like autonomy (being in control of what you do in your work environment), mastery (being good at what you do and wanting to get better) and purpose (feeling that what you are doing is worthwhile) are far better motivators.
The talk itself is under 20 minutes long and is well worth a watch (as are so many of the TED talks).
Of course, some may argue that the simplified environment of the social science laboratory does not translate to the complexities of the real business world. However, this research shows that the implicit assumption that bonuses are required in banking and finance to deliver better outcomes should not be quietly accepted. And, if the G20 are successful in initiating a change to the practices in the financial sector, it may not actually hinder staff performance. In fact, it might even help.