I’ve always admired the European system of relegating athletic teams to lower divisions when they don’t perform well. The system creates much better competition while rewarding teams that do well and penalizing teams that fail.
Let’s say you own a soccer team in the “A” league, the highest level of competition. In addition to the “A” league, your country also has a “B” league, a “C” league, etc. Being in the “A” league provides a lot of privileges – greater attendance, television revenue, prestige, and so on. You have a lot of incentive to keep your club in the “A” league.
At the end of each season, however, the bottom three teams in the “A” league are relegated to the “B” league. At the same time, the top three teams in the “B” league are promoted to the “A” league. (The number of teams moving up or down varies from league to league). You have a very strong incentive not to let your team fall to the bottom of the standings.
In the American system, on the other hand, an “A” league team will always stay in the “A” league, no matter how poorly it performs. There’s no chance that my Colorado Rockies will be relegated to the minor leagues even though they stunk up the major leagues last year.
The American system creates a number of perverse incentives. There’s a clear incentive to lose games one year to improve your draft position the next year. Even if you have a crummy team, you still get to share in league-related income, like TV revenues. You don’t get the glory of winning a championship, but the financial penalties of failing are not very stiff. If you’re just in it for the money, there’s no real incentive to win.
The European system seems clearly superior. It creates greater competition, removes perverse incentives, and creates a system of accountability. You win, you’re in. You lose, you’re out. That seems much more American than European.
I’ve been wondering lately if we couldn’t apply a relegation system to the states of the United States. We have 50 states and some are clearly more successful than others. Even the failing states, however, reap huge rewards from remaining in the union.
In our current system, there’s no real incentive for a state to succeed. Even if a state fails, it still gets huge subsidies from other states. In fact, the greater the failure, the greater the subsidy. It’s a perverse incentive: the worse you do, the more you get.
In fact, some states – let’s call them moocher states – get a net benefit of billions of dollars from the federal government. These states pay a relatively small amount in federal taxes but get huge federal subsidies in return. There’s no incentive for such a state to invest locally. It would only reduce the federal subsidy.
The giver states, on the other hand, are penalized for their success. They see their moneys drained away to subsidize the moocher states. This reduces their incentive to continue to succeed.
So, what to do with the moocher states? Let’s set up a league table and rank states on their success. Every ten years, let’s drop the bottom five from the union. That will improve competitiveness, enhance local autonomy, emphasize responsibility and accountability, and erase perverse incentives. What could be more American than that?
Let’s say I’m a successful sales rep at a business-to-business software company that’s trying to improve customer satisfaction. The company wants me to take good care of my customers, tell the truth, and make them feel loved.
At the same time, the company pays me based on how much software I sell each quarter. It’s in my best interest to sell as much as I can even if I have to stretch the truth a bit and promise more than I can deliver. Of course, stretching the truth and failing to deliver often result in lower customer satisfaction. So the company is incenting me to behave in ways that defeat its own objectives.
In Britain, this is known as the principal-agent problem. In this case, the principal is the company. I’m an agent acting on the company’s behalf. The problem is that the agent’s incentive (my commission) is different than the principal’s objective. We’re working at cross-purposes.
Paul Nutt and other American writers generally refer to this situation as a perverse incentive. According to Wikipedia, a perverse incentive”… has an unintended and undesirable result which is contrary to the interests of the incentive makers.”
Examples abound. We may strive for smaller government but we typically pay government managers based on how many employees they have, not on the profits they generate (since they generate no profits). We encourage orphanages to place children with families, but we pay subsidies based on how many children are in the orphanage.
The examples may sound bizarre but perverse incentives are all too easy to create. Nutt gives a particularly perverse example: the company that proclaims, “We will not accept failure.” While that may sound bold and brave, it sets up a perverse incentive.
Every company fails from time to time. When a failure occurs, it’s in the company’s best interest to analyze it, understand it, and use it as a teachable moment. But companies that don’t accept failure will never get a chance to do this. Employees associated with the failure will bury it as deeply as they can. Otherwise, they’ll get fired.
What should you do when you inevitably encounter a perverse incentive? The first thing is to make sure it’s known. Many times executives set lofty goals (“we will never fail”) without realizing just how perverse they are. Calling attention to perversity is a useful first step.
Second, it’s time to discuss alignment. We often think of alignment in terms of focusing on the same goal. That’s good but only if the incentives for achieving that goal are also aligned. A comprehensive and detailed review of incentives will help identify areas of misalignment. This is when a good HR department is worth its weight in gold.