Variable salaries do not motivate – at all

Variable compensation models and motivation – an experience report

We’re quite a young and digital organization. Our shareholder – a big publishing house – demands variable portions of the salary as a motivational factor. If that’s set in stone, you better look how to implement it best. Since 2015, we implemented variants of a variable compensation model and I’d like to share some of our learnings on the various models.

Salaries in the knowledge workers’ world

Today’s salaries usually have at least two components: the fixed part (paid usually every month) and the variable part (paid usually quarterly, twice or once per year). The fixed part represents the compensation for the working hours and fulfillment of the work contract. The variable portion can vary according to the agreed targets. Depending on the degree of achieving the targets the multiplier for the variable portion may vary from 0 to 1.5 or even higher.

Motivation and knowledge worker

My absolute favorite to understand motivation – and the impact of money on knowledge worker is the video by RSA describing Dan Pink’s thinking behind his book “Drive”: (10m 47s definitely worth watching!)

Motivation = three major ingredients: Mastery, Autonomy, Purpose.

Mastery is an intrinsic driver of knowledge worker. They want to improve their skills, they want to get better and better. A great workplace environment takes this into account and leaves room for people to practice, practice, practice. Autonomy gives people space to solve the problems they’re working on. Nobody tells them how to do so, nobody’s looking at the output. Only the outcome counts. Purpose sets the work activities into a greater context. Everything has a meaning, people understand why they do what they do. They see the greater picture, the vision. Purpose, in my opinion, is the most important ingredient for motivation. Put all three together as a fundament for a work environment and you have very likely intrinsically motivated people.

Money, on the other hand, as a benefit for work kills motivation. It is nice to receive your variable salary once, twice or 4 times a year. It’s a nice way for your boss to say “Well done, thank you!”. BUT the money is not a long lasting instrument to create or increase motivation (look at 2:12 into the video – they present research results there …).

So, why do we still have variable salaries to push motivation and output?

I know quite some young companies, some startups, some larger organizations who operate 100% on fixed salaries. They understood the basic principle of motivation and compensation. On the other side there are still some old, traditional and rusty organizations with variable compensation plans. Some decades ago, they connected the compensation to personal goals and never questioned themselves. Or it’s so common, they can’t even think about getting away from this model.

2015 – The “yearly revenue and individual targets”-model

Management sets a revenue target and every employee and his/her manager agrees individually on targets. The thesis behind the model: money is a key motivator to achieve top performance. The variable part of the salary is 100% connected to a company revenue goal and one or many individual goals.

We observed lengthy and excessive negotiations on individual goals with our employees. Even worse, the just-agreed goals hold just 4-6 weeks until they need refinement. Furthermore, we observed individuals stating they couldn’t help each other because this action would directly conflict with them achieving their goals. In essence, the model leads to people optimizing their personal benefits and defocusses company goals.

2016 – The “yearly revenue and department targets”-model

Management sets a revenue goal and each department head sets a yearly department target. The department target (e.g. “Reduce page load time to less than 2 seconds”) holds for the whole year and is always present. It will influence the way people work together but is not always a focus topic. The department target occurs in the variable compensation plans for all department employees. Thesis behind this model is again: money is a key motivator to achieve top performance. The variable portion of the salary is again connected 100% to the company revenue goal and one or many department goals.

Applying this model we observed less conflicts between individual employees. It’s quite time consuming during the identification of the department goals. They need strong alignment amongst each other. We managed to achieve quite good alignment – however had some occasions where people ended in conflicting department goal discussions. In the end the whole staff focussed ways more on achieving the department goals – better than with the previous model. However, the organization didn’t “feel” aligned on joint goals, more trying to achieve the department goals. Producing shiny winners on the cost of the overall company targets.

2017 – The “yearly revenue and quarterly company targets”-model

Don’t name the model OKR. We successfully burned OKR in 2014. Tried to implement it without external, experienced help. It ended in a process-by-the-book implementation and a perception of a grass-root democratic, inefficient and cluttered way to set 4 management and 4 team targets per quarter.

In this model, the management sets a yearly revenue target and company targets for the next 3 month. The company targets include everybody in the company – no matter what function or department. The targets need to be S.M.A.R.T. (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Timebound) and led to quite some discussion during definition – both between department heads and employees. The targets include e.g. specific product features, specific sales products or marketing activities. Thinking behind this model: everybody sits in the same boat and again money is a key motivator to achieve top performance. The variable portion of the salary is connected 100% to the company revenue goal and quarterly company goals.

During the implementation of this model we found “same company, same targets” led to some motivation for the active influencer for the goals (e.g. product, technology, sales, marketing) and quite some frustration for those having no influence at all (e.g. finance, HR, administration). They had to rely on their colleagues delivering the best job possible. On the other hand, we were able to set relevant goals for the next 3 month and were able to steer the company in a clever and agile way through the rough sea of economical changes. We had the staff members being focussed on achieving few topics of high relevance for the company.

We also learned – the hard way – that goal achievement communication can lead to some confusion and irritation if not done 100% transparent. And setting quarterly goals leads to quite some overhead to define goals every 12 weeks. Agility comes with a price tag!

2018 – The “100% guaranteed and 150% possible”-model

2017 ended with some really bad environmental messages for our business model. We needed to change quite some things. Amongst them was the variable compensation model. Our ambition at the time was to bring maximum calm to the staff members and allow them to focus on the company’s focus goals. One measure was to put away the variable portion of the compensation model. We guaranteed 100% of the bonus and made 150% possible if we achieved a specific traffic target earlier than we expected it.

Thinking behind this model is (see Dank Pink above): money doesn’t have any influence on work performance, but it has on work morale. We decoupled the compensation from achieving targets – allowing people to work on the company’s focus topics. And as a bonus, there is this 150% stretch goal. Nice to achieve – and desirable – but it just sits there.

We observed almost no discussion on compensation and fairness / unfairness of goals. People focused on getting the job done. I’d refer to the state of people as “intrinsic motivated”. At year end we didn’t manage to catch the 150% goal which led again to some frustration amongst the team. Furthermore, some specific departments (e.g. sales) perceive “100% fixed” less as an adorable state. For them it’s less motivating since their working model always follows includes “catching numbers”.

2019 – The “revenue and EBIT goal”-model

Beginning 2019 we found ourselves in a more stable environment and switched back to a variable compensation model. This time, we decided to focus on setting company wide financial goals. Everybody is able to influence them and the effort setting them is limited. The goal is set end 2018 for the whole year.

The thinking behind this model: money doesn’t have any influence on work performance, but it has on work morale. At a first glance, the model doesn’t look like an advancement but it effectively decouples financial goals from specialist topics. It’s the same for everybody and done once a year. So far, so good. It turns out to be a bit problematic since the environmental conditions changed quite a bit and the target corridors defined end 2018 are no longer achievable. So an adjustment is needed!

Which model worked best so far?

The 2015, 2016 and 2017 models worked better and better each year. Still having significant flaws with the direct connection between motivation and money paid. But the got better.

2018 was the most successful model so far. Less friction, lots of motivation and high pace – outcome over output. But we also had some frustration in performance-oriented departments (e.g. sales).

2019 doesn’t feel like an advancement from 2018. But 2019 is not over – let’s see.

The holy grail? Well, I don’t think we found it – so, we need to move on and adapt.

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