Merit Pay Problem


NOTE: Valuable associated information on problems with merit pay found on these two links at this blog: Annotated Research Links page,  and behavior economist Dan Ariely’s research findings, including his entertaining, insightful TedTalk.   Sources explain why merit/bonus pay is not effective in educational and other service provider institutions.  Generally, the evidence argues against merit/bonus pay as an appropriate performance incentive for any people, anywhere.

Dear Readers!

(note: this essay is identical to the now deleted “Merit Pay Cultural Impact: Service: Education, Health Care, posted earlier, March 27, 2010, as a ‘regular’ blog entry.)

Essay: What’s Wrong With Merit Pay??

In a word, “immature”. Not child-level immature, (motivations of children are mentioned several places further along), but a uniquely adult type of immature thinking.

At all levels of culture, we continually remind ourselves that the way to measure contribution is to assign dollar value. Usually we follow through with pay for contribution, but not always. When we want action that “contributes” and don’t pay for it, we call it “volunteering”.

So what’s up with ‘volunteering’? Where does its spirit come from? We praise the volunteer. When we learn of  a volunteer, and of benefit to others from voluntary contribution, we ‘feel good’. We say, with satisfaction, that volunteering “brings its own reward.” We recognize the fundamental value of volunteering. Hang onto this human experience – it’s lost to dollar worship – but not irretrievable.

The volunteer spirit does not “come out of no-where”. It’s present in children, as briefly described further on. Psychology calls it ‘intrinsic’ reward. The volunteer spirit is  closely related to another intrinsic spirit – that of cooperation. Both are  among any group’s  fundamental, survival, needs and hard-wired behaviors.

The adult world has lost connection to this spirit. We do not carry “contribution is its own reward” into our concept of the work-place. Even volunteering to organize an employee picnic is often viewed as “worth favorable employer review.” In other words, we assign potential monetary value, eventual dollar compensation, to volunteering in work places.

Furthermore, in many, possibly most, households we now train children to value contribution for monetary reward. We pay for household chores; the practice of pay for school achievement is widespread. I am old enough to have watched this practice in its early stages. The argument of whether children should be paid for work or school marks was once vigorous, with lots of nay-sayers. Two reasons against were: Children need to experience contributing to family, (cooperating with group needs); and children need to learn that helping and achievement is “not just about money.”  (In my experience, children will always cooperate, always pitch in and help unless they are discouraged from doing so or repeatedly told they “are not doing it right”.)  Argument against “merit pay for children’s chores and school marks” can still be heard, but reasons in support have gained and now frequently “win”. The gist of support for paying children for household chores is that it gives them early experience in understanding money management.

Also part of the argument in favor is that children paid for household contribution learn to “understand that their contributions have value”. We want to inspire enthusiasm (and strategy) for their adult world futures – where money is used to measure value of nearly every contribution. We teach by implication that contributions have diminished value if not paid for. I’m especially interested in how this impacts attitudes and motivations in service careers.

Money is even widely used to assign “comparative” value to contribution! The more compensation received for services delivered, the more “intelligent, smart, clever” is the individual. The more received in compensation, the more “valued” is the service given. We run these value judgments as a continuous feed-back loop. Clever = worthy = well paid = worthy = clever = ….

I don’t argue, even by tiny hint, against fair income for anyone. I do not suggest dollars as compensation is completely wrong. It would be a goofy argument, not worthy of my time to write or yours to read. So please hear: I do not speak against good income for services rendered!!

What I do call to question is use of “merit pay” as intelligent strategy to achieve “fiscal responsibility” and meet “high goals”. The Obama administration has spoken openly about the value of “merit pay” in education. Yesterday I heard a spokesperson speak of merit pay as a means to “realize efficient dollar use” in the coming HC reform package.  Both education and health services delivery are core, essential, societal-benefit systems.  I argue our inability to notice what merit pay introduces to core, essential, societal-benefit systems and services, is purely seated in immaturity that adult society has developed. We have developed this by letting ourselves forget we were born with capacity for cooperation and with motivation to experience reward (intrinsically) for what we can bring to the group.

It may be that merit pay as strategy can achieve some increased dollar efficiency. But at the same time it will feed into an already poisonous immaturity in adult culture. Those with ‘hierarchical power to assess’ will decree value and rewards earned – never a good way to build ‘community’ at any level. Down the road a ways we will be just as angry, competitive, unhappy, as we are now. Our already diminished memory of intrinsic reward for our contributions will further fade.  What if we attempted instead, to structure service systems and delivery in such a way as to foster cooperative team approaches?


We carry within our human psychology many attributes, all geared to survival. Some of these are more long-term helpful, more noble, than others. Others less helpful and less ideal. All of us are born with both as potentials. We set about teaching our young (therefore ourselves as we re-speak lessons learned) what is most helpful, most valuable. 

If what we’ve learned, what we re-confirm by our own words, what we pass along to children – is a truth that external rewards of money and recognition are what society needs, then – despite inborn capacity to generosity and cooperation with group need – we bend children’s ‘book of life’s rules’ toward “me, me, me”.

(Aside: Our ‘book of life’s rules’ (we each have one) becomes our guide to what we believe necessary for “individual social competency”;  “felt individual social competency”  was identified as an in-born prime motivator, beyond physical survival, by Alfred Adler) .

We learn (and teach) “life’s rules” from social environment – this is geared to survival. We “go along to get along” and “play by existing rules” (which means dominant rules – rules that put us at risk if we don’t follow them). Social environment rules are group rules. Family, friends, workplaces – all have practices so well entrenched as to be “rules”.

(Aside: To some extent nearly everyone finds conflict with some group rules; I’m not going to write on this – but want to acknowledge it. I want to stick with the effects of group rules that are generally accepted and followed.)

While we are taught group rules (“truths” agreed on by the group) some of our human attributes are encouraged, others discouraged. Some less helpful attributes – jealously and stealing – are commonly discouraged. Some helpful attributes – in-born urge to contribute to the group’s survival, used to be encouraged more than they are now.  Purpose, value, and enjoyment of intrinsic reward is one of the presently diminished in-born urges and satisfactions that has a profoundly contributive role to group survival.

Logic links individual survival to group survival. An infant is extremely vulnerable, but also logical, even at pre-language development. Logic justifies infant behavior that encourages care-givers to provide food and protection. It’s survival. As understanding develops, consciousness begins to ‘understand’ the principle: “The group is my means of personal survival, if I help the group, the group’s survival odds go up. If the group survives, my survival odds go up.” (Again – language is not required – the child need not make a statement on this.)

There is a mystery about this infantile dawning recognition of personal survival linked to group. A child not yet taught otherwise can take much heart-joy in contribution. “Heart-joy” contribution is “generosity of spirit” and never looks for money or other tangible reward. We are born to experience not only physical survival but to enjoy, intrinsically, choices of cooperation, generosity and compassion.

(Aside: A wide-ranging exploration of primary and generally unspoken very real inter-dependency leads to understanding what is meant by “all life, and all that supports life, is inter-connected, inter-dependent” but that’s not my theme here!)


Back to merit pay. Merit pay feeds into a psychology that sets one apart from the group. Merit pay feeds a general statement: “I am most worthy when I show high achievement based on group rules (whether or not I’ve had opportunity to establish those rules”).  Merit pay is a ‘group rule’ that compares one individual’s contribution to another’s. It is anti-cooperative, ultimately anti the group’s possibility of thriving well.  Someone ‘measured’ as less-skilled at group rules is deemed less worthy. Merit pay holds “value of contribution” to a “truth” that “the only reason people ever contribute anything of worth is when they get special recognition, especially in special dollar compensation.” Such a belief – that no one will ever do his/her best and commit with full heart unless offered “merit” pay, that “material self-interest is the only true motivator of contribution” – is inherently cynical.  Cynicism is an adult ‘wisdom’.

Such cynicism is not truth at all. It is immature, it is taught, it is learned. It completely ignores the easily discovered “intrinsic, inborn” potential to satisfaction through “volunteer-spirit” contribution. The idea that people only contribute for monetary reward is worse than ‘merely’ immature. ‘Merely’ immature is how we describe “pre-adult” behavior. ‘Merely’ means “only temporarily worth noting”.  We assume, or hope for, a child’s ‘mere’ immaturity to improve with experience. 

Merit-pay is not “immature” in this regular sense.  It promotes an adult-invented  belief that says someone able to provide service won’t do unless recognition and money will be the sure outcome.  The immaturity can be contrasted to “highest human principles” – principles of modesty, compassion, and interest in service.  These principles can be captured by borrowing from, and paraphrasing, President Kennedy:  “Ask not what your (society) can do for you, but ask what you can do for your (society).”

I repeat: I do not urge we all become 100% volunteer and ignore value and purpose of money in our lives! But we must, if we are to usher in a greater wisdom among our practices, re-visit the spontaneous impulse to serve freely, without regard to how much money we can make.

The nature of service is such that monetary gain is treated as sensibly necessary but not prime motivator.

Confirmation of intrinsic, in-born, hard-wired “volunteer spirit” as found in children: Very briefly – a description of a child’s “generosity of spirit”: In many years work with young children, I witnessed “spontaneous outpouring of contribution” by young hearts, not yet successfully trained to be money-focused. I also witnessed this in my own child. Children want to contribute! They are not very discriminating – they will help any animal, any person, with any need, any way they can! They can, and do, demonstrate boundless compassion and generosity.

They would give away the store! We set to work to train children to take the value of money seriously. We begin the process by money-reward for chores or school marks along with mini-lectures. Eventually they catch on and are more discerning, less generous. They become more self-protective about rules of the money-game. Eventually they are ripe for concepts like “merit-pay” and less interested in service where money cannot be seen involved in some way.


There is a false notion, in our measurement oriented culture, that a teacher’s classroom success can be accurately measured. Many valid arguments against this simplistic “truth” are made, but presently don’t have much effect. I hold that the same is true of anyone who delivers health care – false notion that full value of service can be measured.

Humans are walking psychological, physical, complexities. Psychological complexities create inter-active dynamics that cannot be measured except over a person’s life-time. A child’s experience with one teacher a certain year may not be known even by the child until years later: “When I think back, I remember … who taught … and “it” has made all the difference to my life.” “It” may be math, personal confidence, or who knows what. “It” cannot be accurately measured without very personalized “development” goals and unique short-term measurable gains for an individual child.

Such personalized measurements are complex to set-up. When I was a teacher – (in an educational environment intentionally supportive of kids, parents, and all staff – and that pursued success in the spirit of cooperation I have to add) –  we set up teams to define goals and plan steps to reach them. Depending on specific issue or need, these might include child, parent/s, learning specialists, counselors, teacher. Teams met before term, mid-term, and post term to review progress. We often used ‘circle dialogue’ and ‘consensus models’ during meetings. The intensity of purpose, measurement,  and community would be ideal but hardly inexpensive. Nevertheless, I argue against “education on the cheap.”

A ‘factory model, headed by a CEO with nothing but for-profit business patterns to guide him/her, might want to interject ‘merit pay’ into this community. Is our purpose, as a society, to disregard positive, in-born community-beneficial spirits like cooperation, generosity, and intrinsic reward as contributors? Or is it to turn the entirety of humanity into a giant money and material-gain factory.  Are we “all about” thriving human society or are we all about waving sticks and carrots.

There is no good outcome for a school environment in which some professionals are “specially identified” as “worthy of bonus for outstanding work.” How does this demonstrate societal appreciation for teacher dedication? It doesn’t. Merit pay is based on a false “truth” that individuals perform best when “carrot-stick” is the strategy. Merit pay, cynical and fear-based, says if we don’t use a carrot-stick system, we’ll never have good teachers.

Medicine as service is similar. The last physician I want to see is one highly oriented to bonus pay, who wants to put a tick worth money beside my name on a list. I want a physician who, like a good teacher, is dedicated by virtue of personal interest and spirit. I want someone alert, generous-hearted, well-trained, intelligent, and well paid – a fair salary for all the dedication, long hours, etc. But I do not want to be part of a “quota pressure”! Merit pay looks for – a “quota”, a head-count, of “success stories.” Patients become objects rather than unique and valued living, breathing, complexities.

The entire culture has been trained, hypnotized, to overlook deep and amazing value to individual and group of “dedicated service for its own reward”. Good teachers and good health care providers have always had this dedication. Now a diminished, under-valued motivator, we will diminish it further with merit pay strategy. If we are going to “weed out” less dedicated providers, I want to reduce possibility of service from any whose primary motivation is a carrot dangling at the end of a stick!

It is false threat, false belief, not true, that “IF we don’t pay these people lots, we lose their skill.”. “SO WHAT,” I say! We’ve already heard enough about high bonuses in the finance industry – the (shudder) risk should they take their brains elsewhere. (I’d be pleased if they did – we never had their hearts in any case, and loss of their brains makes space for replacements that bring both heart and brain.)

By merit pay strategies we encourage  ourselves into a cowering, co-dependent, fear position: “We can’t possibly succeed or be well-served if we don’t pay enough”. We treat merit-pay seekers as if their seeking is a virtue. We invite them to hold us to ransom. We objectify, devalue, and potentially victimize ourselves by our own accepted cultural belief that only money serves as reward. (And we wonder why our Washington legislators take advantage of us – they believe the same thing!)

I repeat: Fair salaries! Make them very very fair! Make them “right” to fit the service, the dedication to service, the hours of behind-the-scenes and up-front professional attention.

Let’s lose the cynicism about human willingness to serve. Let’s consider the benefit to society when we accept, do not dismiss, that some individuals (bless them!) will always bring gifts to the group table – fine, immeasurable gifts – that we may or may not notice. “Improperly socialized” adults of all ages neglect to pay attention to rewards of fame and fortune. They have not fully learned to measure their contribution in dollars received. They experience satisfaction in the giving.

Let’s consider a wisdom attributed to children: “A little child shall lead you”. Let’s pretend we know what that means. Let’s pretend to remember the more helpful human attributes found in children, (yes, children also demonstrate the less helpful, but focus here is helpful). Let’s pretend to remember we once felt as children feel about service, about contribution, about giving.

Let’s pretend to understand that genuine maturity includes bringing helpful, child felt, impulses into our adult world. Genuine maturity does not need money as the exclusive measure of worth – of individual, or of service.

Merit pay in the service sector is a uniquely adult form of immaturity. That we would believe in such a strategy reveals how pervasively this immaturity runs in our culture.

My Best To You!! – MaggieAnn


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