Can we work on the collective and reward the individualistic? Well, sure you can, it happens every day. But it’s a bit crazy. The organization, the corporation, the company, is collectivist in nature. It is not a collection of units doing individual things. It’s a collective for a reason. It’s supposed to do things that the individuals on their own can’t.
The contribution to goals and outcomes has two faces. On one hand, there is the individual: things I am supposed to do, and only me. On the other hand, precisely because the individual cannot reach goals on their own and needs others, the collective collaborative, joining forces, is a primary engine. So far so good.
But we hire individualistic agents and we tell them to ‘work as a team’. OK. What’s that? The individualistic cum laude says. When they manage to learn to ‘work as a team’, we reward them for their individual contributions, so we are reinforcing the original idea. Confusing the troops, we are.
At the other end of the spectrum, everybody gets the same reward on a collective achievement regardless the individual contribution. Read, universal bonus.
Behaviourists would have a problem with either end of the spectrum. The universal reward may address a sense of belonging (‘we are all here together ’) but this is more romantic than real in behavioural terms. In those behavioural terms, the strongest reward is the one in which the individual can see a direct connection between his individual contribution and an outcome. That outcome may be collective. The greater the distance between what I can do, personally, and reward, the weaker the reinforcement effect.
A mix is of course OK. Some general pool reward and a strong personal one connecting me and the outcome, may be a good combination. But be careful what you are aiming for, you may get it. Be careful what you are rewarding, sure you’ll get it. Reward everything, get nothing.
Next time you want a compensation scheme, you need a careful behavioural sciences approach. Let’s say that you need something to be done in strict collaborative terms. You need to reward the collaboration at least equal to the output. You may of course reward both, but, if so, collaboration needs to be stronger. So that it’s not about achieving X, but about achieving it by collaborating with A,B,C. Not rocket science, but we very often forget the ‘by collaborating’ when pretending that we are rewarding collaboration. There is a name for this: very high dose of decaffeinated espresso.