A friend of mine, who has worked in Asia for a long time, told me this fascinating story from his days in Jakarta. He was then running a large and successful group in an ad agency. He promoted a young lady in the group, who was exceptionally good at her work. On getting the news, the young lady broke down and pleaded with my friend not to promote her. Her argument was four-fold:
- My friends will shun me because they will think I have become superior to them.
- If I give feedback to anyone in the team, they will think I am acting bossy
- People will gossip that there is something going on between us.
- We are functioning so well as a group, why do you want to spoil it?
So how should I reward you, inquired my friend? Reward the group, said the young lady. My friend reflected on this for a few days, and took the young lady’s advice.
It’s an instructive incident because the concept of an individual-focused reward system is so ingrained in our management thinking. But the concept (of individual rewards) is essentially a Western import.
It turns out that the West may not be all that different. A study by Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, Idaho State University, McGill University and the University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign seems to suggest that if individuals in a group are successful and singled out for rewards, it de-motivates others in the group.
The effect – called vicarious goal satiation – needs further study but it does have profound implications for companies. People like to swim or sink together. Ignoring this fundamental of human nature may not be good idea, whether it’s a young advertising executive in Jakarta or an Ivy League MBA in New York.