Olympic Badminton Scandal: Beware The Rewards And Goals You Set

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Four Olympic badminton teams were expelled from the games for unsporting conduct, as they obviously "threw" their games. While there's been some interesting discussions of whether the teams were in their "rights" to play the games strategically -- to optimize the number of medals won, or in fact they deserved to be turfed, there's one critical aspect that hasn't been noted.

That's that the teams were responding to a new arrangement for the competition which actually offered benefits (rewards) for doing what they did.

This may be THE mangement lesson to be learned from the 2012 Olympics, and the lesson is central to managing performance anywhere -- and the process of setting individual employee goals, and rewarding employees for the achievement of those goals.

Unintended Consequences of Goals and Rewards

Employees respond to the goals they are asked to achieve, particularly when rewards are offered for the achievement of those goals. As did the Olympic participants, both badminton players and coaches who implemented the "throw a game" strategy. The larger the rewards (or fear of punishment), the more likely the "players" will VIOLATE other principles, or actually impede other goals in play.

That's because none of us works towards a single goal. Life is too complex. We operate on goals in a kind of hierachy, so that some goals are active at some times, and others at other times. When you add in rewards, particularly of high value, as is the case in the Olympics, the goal rewarded becomes the "achieve at ALL costs", while lesser rewarded goals are easily compromised.

We call the results, unintended consequences of goals and rewards.

Yes, they apply to the players in the scandal. Nobody thought: "Well, let's see if we can get thrown out of the Olympics". But that was an unintended consequence.

But they also apply to those that created the larger system that outlines the process, goals and rewards of the situation. For example, when Olympic badminton officials decided to change their process of competition to a round robin situation, nobody said: "Hey, let's create a situation where teams will be rewarded for LOSING".

Obviously, not only was that something they would not have wanted to create, but it's not something they even considered, at least seriously enough to have reservations about the new system. That's the point of unintended consequences. Not only are they unwanted, but often their existence isn't anticipated, although sometimes it's quite predictable.

Applying the Lesson To Management

Few of us will ever be on a world stage, but we are often involved in setting goals and rewards for the achievement of those goals in our organization, whether it be for individual employees, work units of the entire organization.

Here are some points to consider, and ignore at your peril:

At the organization level, if senior executives are focused on the achievement of a single goal (profits, for example), it's more likely that they will violate other goals and principles in play, which starts to explain some of the corporate scandals (i.e. Enron). The higher the rewards for achieving the goals, the more likely you'll get unethical behavior.

Managers are responsible not only for communicating the more primary goals to employees, but also to make sure it's understood that HOW one achieves the goals are important. For example, it's easy to focus on something like individual sales goals, but it's also important that employees understand that it's not acceptable to increase one's sales, at the expense of colleagues, because that damages the organization. The HOW is important, too, not just the obvious results.

As we've said earlier, rewards couple with goals to yield both desired and unintended consequences. The higher the rewards, the more single-minded people will be in pursuit of the goal.

That's one reason why we suggest (as do others), that rewards in the workplace need not, and should not be of substantial value. In the workplace, unlike in the Olympics, rewards work best when they symbolize recognition of a job well done. Recognition is powerful. Monetary rewards are great ways to recognize balanced achievement, but let's face it. If you offered a million dollars to the employee who best achieves his or her goal, don't you think employees would be tempted to color out of the lines to get the prize? The larger the value of the reward, the more likely you'll get unintended consequences.

Conclusion

There are a lot of villains in the Badminton scandal, and of course we tend to discuss who is most to blame. Is it the players themselves? Or the coaches? Or the Olympic officials from the countries who threw their games? Or even the politicians in those countries.

Perhaps they are all culpable, but blame isn't a very productive process.

What is clear is that the changes made to the tournament process layed the foundation for throwing games through setting up a situation where teams could be rewarded by losing. And not considering the unanticipated outcomes of the new structure. They set up the reward structure within the context of the larger rewards of winning in the Olympics. The teams, lusting after the rewards, followed a "path of rewards", that took them astray.

And the odd thing is this kind of thing happens everyday in the real world. In your organization and in your work unit. The morale: Look for unintended consequences and start anticpating them. Then reflect.

 


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Bacal & Associates was founded in 1992 by consultant and book author, Robert Bacal. Robert's books on performance management and reviews have been published by McGraw-Hill. He is available for consultation, training and keynote speaking on performance and management at work.

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