Pay-for-Performance or Pay-for-Show Up?

Since this is my first blog entry, I thought I would introduce myself and my organization first and then try to dodge all the tomatoes that may be thrown my way.

My name is Jeff Press and I am the Executive Director of the Center for Radical Improvement. The Center is dedicated to bringing passionate people together around radical ideas to solve big problems. We do this by providing alternative, retreat-like learning experiences led by inspiring new thought leaders, change agents and authors from around the country. We exist to constantly challenge conventional wisdom and common thought around the ways organizations typically try to improve. Our medium for disseminating this information comes in the form of retreats, breakfasts and workshops that are all very interactive and hands-on in nature. We don’t believe in trying to tackle any issue from 30,000 feet and we won’t bore you with big books of PowerPoint slides and tons of theory. Everything we do is driven by application and we encourage every participant to come with a project or process to improve at one of our events so they can apply all the tools in real-time. You can learn more about the Center at

Now that my one paragraph “plug” is over, I thought I would jump right into what has been a hot issue for a while now, pay-for-performance. Many of my thoughts are directly in line with what Ken Miller talks about. Ken is one of our long-term partners and a long-time friend. He has authored two books, “We Don’t Make Widgets: Overcoming the Myths that Keep Government from Radically Improving” (published by Governing Press) and “The Change Agent’s Guide to Radical Improvement” (published by the American Society for Quality).

I would like to start off by saying that government does exist to make a “profit”, it just isn’t measured in dollars. Profit is the end-outcome measure for private sector organizations and that is the result they are looking for. If we said that government doesn’t exist to make a profit, that would mean that we weren’t here to achieve results. That being said, the “profit” that government achieves is far more important than money. It could be in the form of making our roads safer, creating neighborhood parks for people to enjoy or cleaning up the environment. In government, we need to focus on these issues as heavily as the private sector does on achieving their profit. And in the end, we need to share that profit with the taxpayers and our employees.

One of the ways we have tried to share our profit in government is through pay-for-performance or other monetary rewards and the assumption is that we can motivate people with money. You may be familiar with an article that came out in 1968 written by Frederick Herzberg called “One More Time, How Do You Motivate Employees”. In it, he states that you can’t motivate employees. You can move them to do what you want to do by supplying positive or negative reinforcements but that is not the same as motivation. Motivation is in intrinsic and comes from within. We need to be able to harness that mentality with each of our employees and set them up for success and that doesn’t necessarily mean giving them more money.

In all of the workshops we do, we ask our participants what drives them to get up in the morning and go to work. We have never received the following two answers “higher pay” or “easier workload”. That’s not to say that we can’t keep up with the times. Private sector organizations are making very attractive offers to the next generation to go work for them, and unfair pay is an extreme demotivator. However, the number one answer we’ve seen time and time again is “I want to feel like I’m making a difference”. People will often talk about how they didn’t join the government workforce to get rich. However, in reverting back to my previous point about how we measure “profit” in government, they certainly did join government to get “rich”, just not in the monetary sense. They get “rich” by seeing their connection to the end-outcomes their department or agency is achieving and knowing that they are making a difference.

Just like profit sharing in the private sector, we have to give government employees a stake in their profit. It is our duty to fix the systems and processes of government first, so they can see their connection to the end-outcome. If we don’t allow government employees to achieve their full potential by trapping them in dysfunctional systems we are doing them a disservice by not allowing them to achieve their “profit”. W. Edwards Deming said that 96% of our problems are system problems and 4% are people problems. Employees will only be able to produce what the systems allow yet all of the focus tends to be on the people which is based on the faulty assumption that improved individual performance leads to improved organizational performance. All work happens in systems and the systems are spread out geographically (cross-department or cross-agency) and often times we are unaware of all the connections, overlap and waste. In addition, we will often times give conflicting performance incentives where an incentive is offered to do something that completely contradicts the goals and objectives of the next person in the process. When we lose visibility of the system and the sub-processes, we lose our focus and because the systems in government are often tough to get our arms around (“squishy” or “intangible’) we try to improve what is most tangible, the people.

My final point is that monetary rewards are not evil. I would only caution you not to use them as your first step to improving employee performance. If you want to give monetary rewards to your employees that’s great, but fix the dysfunctional systems and processes first, allow them to see their connection to the end-outcome you are trying to achieve, and then, reward a project team or a special change agent with something extra.

I welcome your dissenting opinions, thoughts and ideas. However, I ask that you only throw one tomato at a time.

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Adriel Hampton

Have you read The Future of Work from Harvard Biz School Press? It’s very interesting in terms of pay for performance. We’ve also discussed this somewhat on other threads. City of Concord, CA, is a shining example in local gov.

Jeffrey Press

I am familiar with it but have not read it cover to cover. His thoughts on employee engagement and giving them decision-making power while decentralizing the hierarchy are appealing to me. One of the reasons our systems and processes are so broken is because of the CYA and all the levels of approval that need to take place (i.e. signatures etc.). My belief is that people will only truly support what they help create. If you have more information on the City of Concord I would be interested in reviewing it.


Welcome Jeff. Glad to have you on board. I ran a poll a few weeks back on GovLoop called “What would make your work better?” and the answer was cooler projects. I also emphasize the need to make a difference. At my old job, I wrote reports that people read on the web. But I had no sense of the readership. A simple stat like 1,000 people downloaded your report would have done a ton for morale. Instead, we scoured the Internet to see if one trade mag would pick up the story and brag about that.

Marcus Peacock

I’ve been invited to a number of your events but haven’t attended. I must say, I’m still a bit fuzzy about what the Center does and how it operates. Do you get your funding from good govt. groups or foundations, grants, etc. or does it pretty much come from the meeting fees? Have you considered linking up in some way with other non-profits like the Council for Excellence in Government?

Jeffrey Press

Marcus – Thanks for your reply. We are able to operate because of the retreats and workshops we do as well as our consulting arm. That being said, we offer complimentary breakfast keynotes and other events where tuition is not required. We like to do a mix of both. We understand times are tough and our number one goal is to disseminate alternative, innovative strategies for improving government performance in any way we can. The “We Don’t Make Widgets” Breakfast Keynote and the “We Don’t Make Widgets” Academy were a couple of ways we were able to do that in 2008 among other events.

We have linked up with a number of non-profits and good government groups in the area. NAPA has been a great source of knowledge and a friend to the Center. The Partnership for Public Service was represented at one of our Academy’s. We have also met with Young Government Leaders and are working to find synergies there. I will be attending the Performance Coalition meeting coming up comprised of many of the think-tanks and good government groups in the area where recommendations on performance issues for the next Administration will be discussed. We are excited about continuing to work with many of the good government groups around the beltway in the coming years.


We have struggled with the idea of pay for performance for a few years, and when $ were not as troubled, had a plan to try it. We decided that we couldn’t put it in place until we could clearly set goals and quantify success against them with each individual, and have spent the last few years evolving our performance appraisal process to integrate goal oriented behavior. Interesting how foreign that is for some city employees, while it is natural as rain for others.

Jeff Friedman

How about a greater emphasis – in government – in managing out poor performers? Related to “motivation” is “workplace culture”…it’s difficult to motivate a workforce when low performers never seem to get managed out of the organization and still get the same relative pay and benefits.


Jeff –
I think it takes both pieces.
Living in the performance world, it is easy to find what isn’t performing and focus on fixing it; fixing what is wrong is culturally what we do.
But that is a very negative emphasis, and over time it erodes enthusiasm for quantifying performance (if you only focus on what is wrong) unless you balance it with a focus on what is being done right. I think it takes both rewarding the top 5% brilliantly, taking decisive action on the bottom 5% and doing something that emphasizes a consistent, positive direction for the organization to be successful.
When I led an organization of about 130 employees in the federal government, I used this philosophy with one twist: whenever someone left my organization they either had an award or disciplinary action. I held supervisors responsible for justifying one or the other, and the result of their efforts reflected on THEIR annual evaluation and the level of recognition they got upon departure.. The combination of the two made us unusually successful and produced a very enjoyable working environment.

Jeffrey Press

Tom – Thanks for your reply. I agree with you that you need to set clear goals and be able to quantify success with your employees. My thought is, allow them to achieve their goals because that is what drives them, not the money. And often times we keep them from achieving their goals because they are trapped in dysfunctional systems and processes that need to be fixed. Often times, organizations can’t see the systems as dysfunctional, and therefore implement a pay-for=performance system to motivate their employees. The notion behind this is “it must be that the people aren’t working hard enough”, when in fact, it is the complete opposite. The people are tangible so they look for the root cause there first rather than the invisible systems that they can’t wrap their arms around.

Jeffrey Press

In regards to your second post, I agree with you. You need to be able to strike a balance. In regards to your point regarding rewards, I am not opposed to rewarding high performers either. However, I think it is even more important to show them their connection to the “profit” you are trying to achieve because I believe that is what truly drives people, the feeling that they are making a difference and the fact that they enjoy thier work, not necessarily because they want a certain % increase on their base salary. That’s not to say pay isn’t important and shouldn’t be commensurate with their performance on the job (unfair pay is an extreme demotivator), but I don’t believe it is the most important thing and I certainly don’t believe it is a strong motivator and certainly won’t help improve the dysfunctional systems that people are trapped in or the end-result an organization is trying to achieve. Dysfunctional systems = dysfunctional outcomes no matter how much pay-for-performance or other rewards you have. And in the end, dysfunctional outcomes leads to an unhappy workforce because they have to deal with backlash. I enjoyed reading about your experience at the federal level, very good stuff.

Jeffrey Press

Jeff – Often times we get caught up in comparing ourselves to the poor performers because it’s so frustrating. There are going to be poor performers in every organization and I believe that we’ve all worked with people who we know aren’t getting the job done but are still getting equal or higher pay than us. It isn’t fair and doesn’t do a whole lot for morale, but it is omnipresent. In many cases (unless you are the decision-maker) you won’t be able to manage them out by yourself. It seems like they are there to stay to make your life miserable. I like to call these people the ones that have retired without telling anybody. In reference to my previous statement around showing them their connection to the “profit”, they probably don’t even care and are beyond any type of motivation. They have totally checked out. All of this applies unless they are truly trying and have genuine intent but are just not capable of doing the job in which case you have to take alternative measures. This also doesn’t apply if the reason they are poor performers is because they are being kept down by the system they are trapped in. Sometimes we wonder why someone can’t get something done in a timely manner or at a higher quality level, and through a careful determination of the root cause, we realize it is not the person, but the process they are trapped in. In the end, we first need to determine the root cause of why someone is a poor performer. Is it an issue that lies within the organization or within that individual or both?