On the folly of principals' power: Managerial psychology as a cause of bad incentives

Magee, Joe C., Gavin Kilduff, & Chip Heath.
Research in Organizational Behavior, 31, 25-41

Faulty and dysfunctional incentive systems have long interested, and frustrated, managers and organizational scholars alike. In this analysis, we pick up where Kerr (1975) left off and advance an explanation for why bad incentive systems are so prevalent in organizations. We propose that one contributing factor lies in the psychology of people who occupy managerial roles. Although designing effective incentive systems is a challenge wrought with perils for anyone, we believe the psychological consequences and correlates of higher rank within organizations make the challenge more severe for managers. Patterns of promotion and hiring typically yield managers that are more competent than their employees, and ascending to management positions increases individuals' workload and power. In turn, these factors make managers more egocentrically anchored and cognitively abstract, while also reducing their available cognitive capacity for any given task, all of which we argue limits their ability to design effective incentives for employees. Thus, ironically, those with the power to design incentives may be those least able to effectively do so. We discuss four specific types of bad incentive systems that can arise from these psychological tendencies in managers: those that over-emphasize compensation, generate weak motivation, offer perverse motivation, or are misaligned with organizational culture.

Wagner Faculty