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“The Trouble with Incentives” refers to a concept that highlights the potential problems and unintended consequences that can arise when using incentives to motivate individuals or groups within an organization or society. Incentives are often used to encourage specific behaviors, improve performance, or achieve desired outcomes. However, they can sometimes lead to undesirable results if not designed or implemented carefully.

Some of the issues associated with incentives include:

  1. Short-term focus: Incentives can encourage individuals to prioritize short-term gains over long-term goals, leading to suboptimal decisions and potentially negative consequences for the organization.

  2. Gaming the system: When incentives are tied to specific metrics or targets, individuals might find ways to manipulate the system to achieve the desired outcome without genuinely contributing to the organization’s overall success.

  3. Crowding out intrinsic motivation: Incentives can sometimes undermine intrinsic motivation by making people feel that they are being controlled or manipulated, leading to a decline in intrinsic motivation and overall performance.

  4. Unintended consequences: Incentives can result in negative side effects, such as encouraging unethical behavior, excessive risk-taking, or other actions that might harm the organization or society in the long run.

  5. Overemphasis on individual performance: Incentives that focus solely on individual performance can lead to competition and a lack of collaboration within teams, which can be detrimental to the organization’s overall success.

To address these issues, it’s essential to carefully design and implement incentive systems, considering both the intended and unintended consequences. This might involve using a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, aligning incentives with the organization’s long-term goals, and promoting a culture that values collaboration, learning, and continuous improvement.


Here are a few specific examples of how incentives can lead to unintended consequences:

  1. Wells Fargo scandal (2016): To meet aggressive sales targets, employees at Wells Fargo created millions of unauthorized accounts in customers’ names. The incentive structure in place rewarded employees for opening new accounts, which led to widespread fraudulent activity to meet the targets and earn bonuses.

  2. Enron scandal (2001): Enron, an energy company, had an incentive system that heavily rewarded employees for meeting short-term revenue goals. This led to a culture of excessive risk-taking, manipulation of financial reports, and unethical behavior, ultimately resulting in the company’s collapse. (Ref: Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room)

  3. No Child Left Behind (2001-2015): The U.S. education policy No Child Left Behind tied school funding and teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests. This high-stakes testing environment created an incentive for some educators to cheat, inflate test scores, or narrow the curriculum to focus on test preparation at the expense of broader learning experiences for students.

  4. Cobra effect in colonial India: In an attempt to control the cobra population, British colonial authorities offered a bounty for every dead cobra. Instead of reducing the number of cobras, people began breeding cobras to collect the bounty. When the authorities became aware of the scheme and stopped the program, the breeders released the now-worthless cobras, resulting in an even larger cobra population.

  5. The Ford Pinto (1970s): Ford Motor Company, eager to compete in the small car market, incentivized the rapid development and production of the Ford Pinto. To meet cost and time constraints, the company overlooked safety issues that led to fuel tank explosions in rear-end collisions. The resulting lawsuits and negative publicity caused significant damage to Ford’s reputation.

  6. The Boeing 737 MAX crisis: Faced with competitive pressure from Airbus, Boeing focused on minimizing costs and meeting tight deadlines while developing the 737 MAX. This resulted in design decisions that compromised safety, such as the problematic Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). Combined with inadequate regulatory oversight and insufficient pilot training, these factors led to two fatal crashes that claimed 346 lives. The crisis highlights the importance of balancing business goals with safety and proper regulatory oversight to avoid tragic outcomes.

  7. UK’s Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme: The UK government introduced the RHI scheme in 2011 to encourage the use of renewable heating systems. However, the program had a design flaw in Northern Ireland, where the subsidies were higher than the cost of the fuel, leading to excessive use of heating systems and overspending on the program. This became known as the “cash for ash” scandal, and it resulted in a significant waste of public funds and a political crisis in Northern Ireland.

  8. French solar power incentives: In the late 2000s, France introduced generous feed-in tariffs to encourage the adoption of solar power. The tariffs were so attractive that they led to a surge in solar installations, causing an unexpected strain on the national grid and a rapid increase in the cost of the program. The government was forced to scale back the incentives, leading to job losses in the solar industry and a decline in new solar installations.

Page last modified: 2023-05-08 01:55:11