Thoughts on switching goals from financial reward to social good

2019-02-06 // Product Management //

I read “Facebook throws out traditional performance bonuses, will instead reward employees for social good” with interest. Facebook’s comment that “[..] in a nutshell: Facebook’s moving from a focus on growth, to a focus on change” really got me thinking about how the systems, processes, tools, and culture of an organisation have such a heavy impact on a person’s ability to achieve a goal.

For the next six months, employees will be evaluated against a new set of company goals: making progress on major social issues, building new experiences, supporting businesses and communicating more transparently about the work Facebook does.

Those are interesting, and broad, goals. Expecting people to achieve them in the first six months is certainly ambitious. Rather than try to tear apart Facebook’s new direction here (impossible.. we don’t know enough at this stage), I do want to share an experience from very early in my career that stayed with me.

I used to work in Collections for a very well known high street retail bank in the UK. Collections is where your account ends up if you owe the bank money and you have fallen behind with your payments. That department’s goal is basically to recoup funds or minimise the bank’s losses due to bad debt.

When I first started working there I made a commission based on how much money I was able to get back for the bank. I hate to admit it, but I was very good at this. “Do you have a debit card to pay £20 today?” was my depressing rallying cry.

Later, however, the bank made an important and admirable change. We would no longer receive a commission based on the money we recouped. Instead, we would earn a bonus for every account we “brought back to health”. That meant that they got back on track with their payments and, crucially, they didn’t end up back in Collections in the six months that followed.

Like Facebook, a shift in focus from financial health to social health.

Suddenly, I was not quite as good at the job any more. Just asking for £20 here and there was never going to result in the lasting change that the new bonus structure required. Instead, I had to spend time understanding the root cause of the customer’s issue and then help them find remedies to those problems.

This sounds incredibly rewarding, but it didn’t work out that way. Why?

  • My day to day targets didn’t change. Call handling time, number of calls etc remained unchanged. I couldn’t give customers the focus that they deserved.
  • My toolkit didn’t change. There were no new remedies available to help us address the issues we were now uncovering.
  • The bounds of my authority didn’t change. I couldn’t just “do what’s right”. All I could do was “what the system allowed”, and that system was rooted in the old way of doing things.

The outcome? We started to refer lots more people to debt counsellors and debt management agencies because we were powerless to assist. It was near impossible to achieve our goal.

And that’s the rub. Changing values or goals is a laudable effort. It may well result in limited positive change. Without addressing the systemic, procedural, and cultural issues and incentives at play, though, change will be by fluke rather than by design.

This is how I learned that most problems are systemic to greater or lesser degrees. It’s also how I learned that a goal alone isn’t enough to achieve change. It needs to be backed up with purposeful planning and buy-in.

I’m crossing my fingers that Facebook pull this off.