Missing the Mark: The Pitfalls of Creating Reward Systems That do not align with Team Goals

Would it be very difficult to find a coach who underemphasizes teamwork, comradery and working toward “the good of the team”?  Yes, it probably would be. Most inspirational, halftime locker room talk would include a lot about teamwork—even over individual players’ efforts.  However, do professional teams actually reward teamwork? Alternatively, is it more likely that impressive individual scoring records matter the most for draft decisions and player compensation/raises?

What about performance appraisals at the office?  How often do leaders encourage their followers to set challenging, risky and demanding goals in the hopes that they “put all in” to reach them… yet, at the same time, formally tie accomplishment of these goals to promotions and raises? Should we be surprised when these employees set weaker goals in order to avoid the risk of losing the promotion or the raise?

Finally, what about the expectations we place on leaders themselves?  Do we hope for our leaders to be “on” virtually all of the time when it comes to inspiring and influencing followers, while also disregarding their demanding technical, administrative and strategic duties? 1 Indeed, research suggests that leaders who try to “do it all” tend to have the most job demands and experience the most burnout. (Perhaps, not interestingly, leaders who disengage in leadership behaviors experience less demands and less burnout. Leadership takes effort and energy!).2

In 1975, Steven Kerr published “On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B,” an article that continues to be compelling for today’s leaders.3 Although this “folly” can occur in a number of contexts (even within our personal lives), it is particularly relevant for leaders. Leaders are not only expected to be charismatic, transformational and visionary. They are also expected to set reward/punishment systems for their followers.4

In 2018, Bruce Skaggs and colleagues advanced Kerr’s line of thought by outlining “The Folly of Punishing A, While Hoping for A.”5  Not surprisingly, there are a number of instances in which leaders, either intentionally or unintentionally, may punish behaviors that they hope to observe.  As some examples, we often insist that “it is OK” for individuals to fail when pursuing great success (e.g., “failing forward”).  Ironically, failure is something organizations do not historically or typically tolerate.  Second, leaders may overtly punish those who are communicating honestly when it does not fit the narrative, culture or collective opinions of the team (even when this is exactly the type of feedback they need to hear). Finally, the “curse of competence” suggests that star performers may be unintentionally “punished” by being given more responsibilities—regardless of their current work capacity.

Many of us can likely come up with our own examples of how we often hope for one outcome but reward/punish inconsistently. In what ways can leaders take a step back and recognize when they may be missing the mark with their own followers?  Kerr notes a number of ways in which leaders may fall into this trap:

  • Fascination with Objective Metrics: Although it is tempting to reach for explicit numbers, and the ease of using objective measures is “low-hanging fruit,” they may cause the wrong goals to be targeted. This is especially worrisome when objective metrics are heavily affected by outside forces or weakly linked to the behaviors that actually matter.
  • Overemphasis on the Highly Visible: It is easier to reward the behaviors that we observe more often (e.g., the clear results obtained by star performers), but less easy to reward that which cannot be seen (e.g., the behind-the-scenes assistance from the unsung heroes of the office).
  • Hypocrisy: On the surface, leaders may encourage certain behaviors (e.g., a leader who declares, “There is no hierarchy in this organization; we are all equals here!”). Yet, the leader or followers may not be adhering to or reinforcing the behaviors in reality (e.g., that same leader retreats to the cozy, executive bathroom after the meeting).
  • Moral Obligation vs. Efficiency: Sometimes, for better or for worse, moral obligations may interfere with what we are rewarding. For example, a leader may feel morally obligated to allocate equal time to all of his/her followers’ projects, rather than focusing on the follower’s project that is most important to the team’s success.


  1. Dierdorff, E. C., Rubin, R. S., & Morgeson, F. P. (2009). The milieu of managerial work: An integrative framework linking work context to role requirements. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94(4), 972-988. doi: 10.1037/a0015456
  2. Arnold, K. A., Connelly, C. E., Gellatly, I. R., Walsh, M. M., & Withey, M. J. (2017). Using a pattern-oriented approach to study leaders: Implications for burnout and perceived role demand. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 38(7), 1038-1056. doi: 10.1002/job.2182
  3. Kerr, S. (1975). On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B. Academy of Management Journal, 18(4), 769-783. doi: 5465/255378
  4. Podsakoff, N. P., Podsakoff, P. M., & Kuskova, V. V. (2010). Dispelling misconceptions and providing guidelines for leader reward and punishment behavior. Business Horizons, 53(3), 291-303. doi: 10.1016/j.bushor.2010.01.003
  5. Skaggs, B. C., Manz, C. C., Lyle, M. C. B., & Pearce, C. L. (2018). On the folly of punishing A while hoping for A: Exploring punishment in organizations. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 39(6), 812-815. doi: 10.1002/job.2287

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.