Putting a Price Tag & Losing out on Intrinsic Value – in Life & at Work.

A social experiment in Israel is a good reason to explore the after-effects of putting a price-tag on desired behaviour. Our performance assessment & reward structures are built around paying good money for a job done – on specification. And a penalty or lack of increment for sub-par performance. The system works. Or does it?

Here’s what happened. Parents in day-care centres in Israel used to keep anxious kids & a tired teacher waiting well past the pick-up time of 4 pm. They were habitually late. Economists monitored ten such centres for four weeks. On an average, there were eight late pick-ups per week per day care centre. The parents hurried onto the scene half guilty, half worried. Fifth week onwards, they imposed a penalty of 3$ for a more than ten minute delay. The parents were paying $380 per month. By the twentieth week, the average pick-ups per week per day care centre had shot up-to twenty, more than double the original average!

Daniel Cohen, French economist puts it well, “There are things we do because we cherish them. We try not to be late to pick up our kids. We have a sense of duty. The moment you tag a price on this, 3$ for being late, you entirely change the barometer of what you are doing. Well, if it’s just a case of paying money, being late is not that expensive. What becomes monetized then loses its intrinsic value, in this case, the sense of duty or timely care that parents felt towards their children. The delay is bought & paid for! “

If I do something out of intrinsic value, and it becomes a part of monetary equation, I care less as the ‘intrinsic’ nature of the value is what made me do it. I felt guilty about not returning library books on time. There was no fine for being late. There were members queued up for the books in my online account details. When the library levied the fine, I could pay for my sins & take care of my conscience. The intrinsic value of keeping my agreement is diminished by the fine.

Carbon-trading is a great example. All countries have to limit their carbon emissions; pollute less and save the environment. If they cross the emission limit, they have to pay huge monetary fines. The rich nations buy the emissions quota from the poorer ones. It costs less to buy the quota than pay the fine. Besides their way of living continues unabated. They pollute more using their extended emission limit & also claim to have prevented the poorer ones from harming the environment. Lost in translation is the fact that the poorer ones pollute to meet their sustenance needs. There is no value to talk about, forget intrinsic!

Consider the way we have monetized things in life that were of intrinsic value & how that has impacted our concept of community living, a life built around shared values. We used to drink water from public taps till bottled mineral water dis-incentivised making public water potable. We left our house keys with neighbours till home security systems gave us exclusive control. We relied on our friends to pick up kids from school till school buses with smart cards & message notifications made us feel everything is taken care of. Our web of connectivity, of interdependence; had intrinsic value.

In our work-place, people as social beings gravitate towards each other and build natural bonds around values of co-operation and reciprocity. Working together builds a web of connectivity, of interdependence. Intrinsic value abounds.

When we rigidly stipulate specific behaviours, like co-operation & reciprocity as identifiable requirements for good performance, we strip away the intrinsic value, put a price tag on them, and turn ourselves into people labouring to achieve them. It is like being paid to breathe air! People don’t need incentives to get along with each other, to get together and do something useful. We supply these to explain the reward, to establish a cause-effect relationship. Our energies are better utilized if we facilitate a shared outcome for them.

Behavioural descriptors are specific and appeal to the rational mind, the part that loves to see cause leading to the effect. Describing them to the last detail snuffs out the spontaneity of our emergent living, the authentic expression of our performance.

Take the example of cabin-crew on flights. When passengers board the flight, they simply have to smile. No matter what. The smile has to be there. And passengers have so come to expect it, that both the passenger and the flight attendant co-operate in getting the greeting over and done with! In our quest for efficient job-profiles, putting in the smile as a behavioural descriptor is the easiest of things. But what if we decide to treat every individual as unique. Ask the person, what they think makes people feel welcome. Share what passengers say about their experience. Ask how they can be their real self in according a welcome. Ask how they would respond when they are feeling low & ushering in those who board. How could they continue being professionals to the core & achieve the outcome of making the passenger feel welcome.

A smile is being fretted over in so many words because a smile has universal intrinsic value 🙂 It’s worth persevering for intrinsic value..

There are humbling lessons to be learnt by altruists from all walks of life. We read about auto-rickshaw/taxi drivers who faithfully return significant money or valuables forgotten by their customers. When offered a reward, they decline to take it. They know how to retain intrinsic value. Vipassana meditation has a beautiful scheme of voluntary pay-it-forward. Your meditation retreat is paid for. You can choose to pay for somebody in the future, somebody who will never know. The concept of a shared economy in which people choose to share resources (a car, a bike, a rented room) based on different usage-timings is a half-way stop towards rediscovering intrinsic value; towards rebuilding community.

What about people at work? We are insecure about intrinsic value.  We are unsure whether it will show up! What if people forget to be good to each other?! You have to give them a script. They have to sandwich the criticism between two slices of praise. They have to be seen doing the right things and document it all. Everything has a price, after all. We maintain an updated price-list! We cling to the market & our soul craves for community.

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