Minus two and a half cheers for sticks and carrots – my short answer to The Economist

Photo by AdamAxon

Let’s say you were born just a little before the car started to be a really useable means of transportation. You grew up watching everybody around you use horses. In fact, you know how people, who don’t have horses, are suffering. With a horse you can do so much more. Get to places faster. Be more productive. Hell, you stick a cart to it, and you can almost do anything with it. It sure allows you to have more time to do other stuff. And you look at this new invention, the car, and you say to yourself – “well, it has its merits, but horses work for me and they are have done so well for civilization, I think I would keep with horses”.

How would you describe this type of thinking? I know human are slow to adapt to change, but looking back from our comfortable place up history’s line, this guy just seems ridiculous to us. Well, I am not sure people in the future would not look at The Economist’s Schumpeter article from January 14th titled: Driven to distraction – Two and a half cheers for sticks and carrots the same way.

In this article, The Economist goes against what they call “… [The] Eminent management theorists [That] have been dismissing payment-by-results as simplistic and mechanical ever since Frederick Taylor tried to turn it into the cornerstone of scientific management in the early 20th century”. Their wrath is turned  especially against Daniel H. Pink new book, Drive. Their claim? The system of sticks and carrots, actually works. So please, don’t bother us with all this “new-age”  Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose propaganda:

How convincing is all this? Mr Pink insists that all he is doing is bringing the light of science to bear on management: “There’s been a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.” But this argument depends on a highly selective reading of the academic literature. Four reviews of research on the subject from the 1980s onwards have all come to the same conclusion: that pay-for-performance can increase productivity dramatically. A study of an American glass-installation company, for example, found that shifting from salaries to individual incentives increased productivity by 44%. More recent research on workers at a Chinese electronics factory also confirms that performance-related pay (especially the threat of losing income) is an excellent motivator (see article).

I had to re-read this paragraph several times to believe my eyes. The argument is: It works, thus it is good and we should reject anything else. Is it only me, or does it sound a little totalitaristic? Yes, Stalin’s rule worked, for a time, but was it a good thing? Personally, I don’t believe so. To me it sounds like this is focusing on the how and forgetting to ask why?

Carrots and sticks might work, but its underlining assumption is that people are jackasses (that is stubborn, stupid, willful, and unwilling to go where someone is driving him). Carrots and sticks might boost productivity, but they lead to a society where almost half the people are unhappy with their jobs. Carrots and sticks might is measurable, but great things come out of processes that we cannot measure.

It is not the first time I was shocked to see The Economist supporting the conventional wisdom. And while I don’t blindly buy into everything Dan Pinks says (as skillfully as he says it) and I do believe that his approach should be supplemented with other approaches, it hurts me to see such idolism of carrots and sticks and Taylorism.

The past will always to try to prevent the future. I don’t think this future could be prevented for long…

Elad

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