A few years ago I attended a conference and the keynote speaker, Renée Baillargeon, an eminent psychologist discussed the ways in which children develop knowledge about their social world at much earlier ages than we have believed possible. Piagetian theory often placed a child’s ability to engage in complex social processing as not possible until well into the preschool ages. In fact, what Baillargeon’s work pointed out was that an infant’s capacity to process and predict social behaviors occurred much earlier and were delayed only due to our capacity to measure and assess them. Rather than assessing verbal answers she has developed a method which measures eye gaze and since this can be reliably measured in infants as young as 18 months there are now indications that social-moral reasoning is happening earlier than previously observed.
Recently she and her colleague’s published their results in Psychological Bulletin and have explored the question of whether infants have a sense of fairness. Their work suggests that the idea of what is fair, who has been wronged, and whether our responses are congruent to the event are directing our behavior and motivations from the earliest of ages. It gets me thinking about the implications when bonuses or other rewards are distributed throughout an organization.
In their research Sloane, Baillargeon, and Premack (2012) examined how infants responded when puppets that were asked to “clean up these toys” were rewarded for their working or slacking behavior. In many workplaces similar conditions exisit; a reward is offered to those who “clean up” and subsequently effort is then expended on cleaning up in order to attain the reward. We are pretty tolerant that all who expend effort should enjoy the reward, but we tend to bristle when someone we perceive to have not genuinely engaged in the task also enjoys the reward. I can recall when a client was discussing a decision she made in awarding bonuses. In her estimation the member of the team that was not present during that quarter due to a leave should not enjoy the bonus enjoyed by the rest of the team that was present all quarter. She was a bit puzzled however when that same employee gave notice a few weeks later, and in her exit interview indicated that being denied a bonus that the rest of the team enjoyed was a factor.
We have terms to explain these differences in perception when it comes to organizational decisions and justice. Those who argue that the worker was rightfully withheld a bonus since she technically did not work that quarter subscribe to an equality justice ethos; you are rewarded directly commensurate to the work you put in. The worker however appears to have subscribed to an interactional justice ethos; you are rewarded based on the interpersonal and procedural distributions you have influenced. The case might be argued that although she was absent during the quarter she was still responsible for some of the deals that had closed that quarter, she was still being cited as a member of the team to existing and potential clients and so her team benefited from their affiliation with her despite her absence, and she had not behaved in a manner to detract from the team or withheld support of her team despite her physical absence.
When the infants watched the two puppet giraffes either get a sticker for working or get a sticker despite slacking, Sloane et al (2012) report that the 21 month olds looked longest/perceived the greatest injustice when the reward was announced before the task began, and was then distributed evenly to both the worker and the slacker puppet. If no reward had been announced, but a directive to clean up was provided and then the giraffes, worker and slacker both, were given a sticker, the infants did not see as large an unfairness.
Might this guide us in managing Q2 bonus opportunities? If you find yourself managing fall out from 2011 bonuses or bracing for Q1 disputes think about whether you have systems in place to ensure that workers, not slackers, are being rewarded. If such systems are not realistic for current circumstances consider whether pre-announcing awards is such a wise idea. It may be better to promote organizational commitment to simply award “the stickers” without pinning it on certain efforts. Not your idea of a bonus? Call it something else, it will likely encourage the OCB you seek, incentivize those motivated by external inputs, and not detract from those whose contributions are significant but less visible. And most importantly, if you are thinking you will help yourself to your 21 month old’s valentine candy and think she won’t mind a bit, think again! Those kiddos are socially savvy!