One way to get me to do almost anything is to call me a chicken. As a matter of fact, just inferring that I’m a chicken is usually enough. I even do it to myself to motivate me.
Which is how I ended up asking for a 100% raise and a $10,000 bonus.
Back Story: Last summer my board of directors asked me to take on additional responsibilities with no additional pay. I knew we didn’t have any money for raises at that time. (Being the company comptroller,¹ I know crap like that.) I’m also a team player, and I didn’t want anybody to think I’m a chicken, so I agreed.
But this January we started a new budget cycle. And although the Board knows that I’m their Guernsey, they don’t get the milk for free. Am I right, ladies? But I guess they weren’t getting it for free. They were just getting more of it at no additional cost. So what I’m saying is they can’t get my milk at a discount.² I’m not the Ross Dress For Less of intellectual capital.³
My idea behind the $10,000 bonus was that it would compensate me for the extra work I did last year. I knew it was a lot of money to ask for, but it felt right. You know, the way $10,000 feels. And I didn’t want to be a chicken.
In an additional exercise of internal posturing against being a chicken, I decided the amount of the bonus wasn’t negotiable. I was going to dig in my heels and demand $10,000, no compromise.
But then the board of directors did something I didn’t anticipate. They approved $5,000 of the $10,000 bonus, and made the other $5,000 contingent upon my closing an incredibly complex $1.5 million land acquisition within three business days.
Now you have to realize, we’d been working on this deal since last spring. It was supposed to close mid-December, but the attorneys delayed the negotiations because of what appeared to be some kind of weird lawyerly passive aggressive status contest. Then we ran into major problems with the deed for the land, requiring a public hearing with the Provo City Council.
But finally, everything appeared to be in place, and it seemed reasonably likely that we could close the deal in three business days, and clearly the Board just wanted it done.
Closing required very little from me. The entire thing rested on the attorneys finalizing various documents. The only thing I could do to expedite the process was to respond quickly to requests, and to either shame or guilt the attorneys into working faster.
Now, although I had resolved to not negotiate on the bonus, this $5,000/$5,000 split was a grey area. They weren’t denying my $10,000 bonus. They were just making it interesting. Also, they were also implicitly asking me if I was a little baby.
I was taken off guard by the proposal, and I had to make a decision, so these words came out of my mouth: “Making the bonus contingent on closing the land deal is not going to change my behavior. I’m going to continue to work diligently to close it with or without a $5,000 carrot. This is more like us betting on a football game. It’ll make it interesting … so I’m in. Let’s do this, bitches.” Those are the exact words I used.
In his book Drive, my BFF Dan Pink says, “The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table,” and historically my company has always done that. My main motivation for excellence at work is the intrinsic motivation to gain the approval of a group of six men because I’ll never be sure if I’ve earned the approval of my father.
But now all of a sudden, I’m sitting here with this gigantic extrinsic reward – this giant financial motivator, which is weird for me because I’ve bought into the idea that extrinsic rewards don’t really work and can even be counter productive.
Again with the Dan Pink:
When institutions focus on the short-term and opt for controlling people’s behavior, they do considerable long-term damage. … In eight of the nine tasks we examined across three experiments, higher incentives led to worse performance. … We find that financial incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance.
So this was the perfect opportunity for me to observe my own behavior to see if Dan Pink was right or wrong.
He was right, and he was wrong.
That night after the board meeting, the effects of the bonus began to surface. Our attorney asked me to review and approve his changes to the purchase documents. That meant combing through almost 100 pages of legal docs before heading to bed.
Have you ever had to read through something that you’ve read through before, and you hated it the first time through, but for some reason you had to read it again. Yeah, that’s what I had to do just with lots of heretofores, notwithstandings and legal descriptions of property lines.
Before the meeting and before the contingent bonus, I knew I was going to have to read this crap, and I envisioned myself slogging through it in a diligent yet pissy manner. But now there was a $5,000 bill attached to getting this crap done. So instead of being like, “Boo hoo, I have to stay up reading legal documents until midnight,” I was like, “Hell yes! I get to stay up reading legal documents until five-thousand-dollars o’clock!!!” The gamble turned drudgery into competition. It really did feel a lot like betting on a football game. Except instead of cheering for a football team, I got to sit quietly and read.
In theory, I figure I must have done a higher quality job reviewing the documents with the contingent bonus than I would have without it. I base that on the assumption that an excited and engaged worker is a better worker than pissy worker.
So score one for extrinsic bonuses, but as the next couple days unfolded, I noticed some of the dangers of extrinsic rewards started to surface. Because my bonus was tied to completing a task within a certain time frame, this played out in a suboptimal way.
The land purchase includes a parking lot, and the initial purchase agreement excluded five parking spaces. Our attorney made note of this, assuming that it was an oversight on the part of the seller. However, it turned out those bastards meant to leave them off and had no intention of including them in the purchase.
I felt strongly that we deserved those five parking spaces. But I was also convinced that fighting for them would cost me $5,000. Not my company. Me. So I told our attorney that I didn’t want to fight, I wanted to close. Was that in the best interest of my employers? Or was that purely self-interested greed?
I’m convinced that not fighting was the right move. We don’t get the five spaces, but we don’t have to pay for the five spaces. Also, the seller is going to sign a side agreement allowing us to use those five spaces indefinitely. (They can terminate the side agreement at any time with 30-days’ notice. I’m hoping that once the side agreement finds its way into a filing cabinet, it gets forgotten, and the five spots are ours forever.) Plus, one of the main reasons for the rush to close was a financing deadline. If our financing fell through, it could take two months to go through the process again, we would be required to get a new appraisal (±$8,000), and our interest rate would undoubtedly go up.
Above and beyond that, one must infer from the very existence of the contingent bonus that my bosses were more concerned about me closing the deal than optimizing the deal. Right? I’m sure that was an explicit part of their deliberations over my bonus. (Okay, please re-read that last sentence with more sarcasm in your brain voice.)
So two days later, everything was moving along, and I was counting all my un-hatched chickens. And then I got the email.
The seller said there was “no way” they’d be prepared to close on Monday. It was unequivocal, and just like that my $5,000 bonus evaporated.
Suddenly the football game wasn’t interesting anymore. Now it just sucked. I was the Seahawks, and that email was the goal-line interception by a no-name Patriots rookie.
I’m a professional, and I’m a grown-ass man. I could handle the let down. However, every time I had to send an email or scan a document or call a lawyer, it was hard not to think how much funner those things would be with $5,000.
The deadline passed. The bank gave us an unexpected and surprising extension on our financing, and the deal is probably going to go through just one week later than we hoped. And I’m $5,000 poorer.
I believe that my overall performance on this transaction was good. However, I’m sure my performance was impaired somewhat by that bonus. And if that sort of incenting was commonplace in my company, the cumulative effect would undoubtedly be material.
Regarding the bonus, I’ve thought about going back to the Board and asking them to reconsider. But I’m not going to because I’m too proud. Not because I’m too chicken.
¹I’ve taken on the title “comptroller” because it makes me sound like a badass.
²Not even a 2% discount.
³In a knowledge economy, I’m a cow and my intellectual capital is milk, and I voluntarily hook up my knowledge teats to the intellectual capital pump so as to trade my brain-milk for wallet-cash.
Greg was born in Akron, Ohio, in the shadow of the Firestone tire factory. He began to swim competitively when he was eight, swimming for the Mountlake Terrace Lemmings. He graduated in 1995 from the University of Washington with a math degree. He chose math for the ladies. After serving ten-years as an 8th grade math teacher, he decided it was time for a career change, mainly because he “couldn’t stand those little bastards.” He began his accounting career with a local CPA firm in Orem, Utah, where he consistently failed the QuickBooks ProAdvisor advanced certification exam. Greg currently works as the Controller for the Utah Valley Physicians Plaza. He lives in Provo, Utah, with his wife and two kids. He enjoys eating maple bars, drinking Diet Pepsi, and swearing.