When Your Broken Hip Is My Incentive

You never want to be embroiled in something that ends with a “gate.”

Unfortunately, if you’re on the New Orleans Saints, you’re now caught up in “Bountygate.”  As the New York Times reported, members of the team’s defense “maintained a lucrative bounty system that paid players for injuring opponents, according to an extensive investigation by the NFL.”

“The bounty system was financed mostly by players—as many as 27 of them—and was administered by the former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams,” the Times explained. “The system paid $1,500 for knocking a player out of a game and $1,000 for when an opponent was carted off the field, with payouts doubling or tripling during the playoffs.”

You could say that this is little more than an indication of how competitive—and inherently violent—the NFL is. But another way to look at it is a management lesson in the consequences of bad incentives.

“Human beings will behave as they are rewarded—whether the reward is money and promotion, a medal, an autographed picture of the boss, or a pat on the back,” Peter Drucker wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. “This is the lesson that the behavioral psychologist has taught us.”

That’s why Drucker warned against any compensation schemes that would “reward the wrong behavior, emphasize the wrong results and direct people away from performance for the common good.” Simply put, Bountygate is a cartoonish example of rewarding the wrong behavior.

But would men making millions of dollars a year really be tempted by payments of a few thousand dollars?  No way, says former Saints defensive back Darren Sharper, who denies that rewards ever got paid out for injuries. “The math doesn’t make sense,” Sharper told USA Today. “The amount that you would get fined for taking a cheap shot at a guy is exponentially higher than what the amount of money that a bounty could be.”

Photo credit: Pink Sherbert Photography

On this score, Drucker may well have agreed—at least partially. Money, Drucker pointed out, is only good for making people do something they already want to do. As he put it in The Practice of Management, cash “motivates only where other things have made the worker ready to assume responsibility.”  This could be seen, for example, in the workings of incentive pay for higher output. “The incentive pay produces better output where there is already a willingness to perform better,” Drucker wrote. “Otherwise it is ineffectual, is indeed sabotaged.”

In other words, maybe players did try to get $1,500 for injuring opponents, but, if so, they probably did it for love, not money.

What really motivates us—bonuses or the achievement that bonuses symbolize?