After paying good salaries
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By Daniel Agyen-Tweneboah

“We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give” … Winston Churchill.

A well enlightened old friend of mine who belongs to one of the professions had been a regular participant at an annual international conference outside Ghana. As part of the sessions, participants are always asked an open question like this: “What is your topmost motivation as an employee?” For years his blatant answers to that question had been “cash!” When asked why those repeated responses, he would always say he did not want his employer to think that he was on a “volunteering mission – money pays my bills!” True, isn’t it? My good old friend is right. Is money therefore the game changer for employees in spawning motivation?

If higher levels of compensation are such a motivator, why does it not do the trick always? I work in an industry that is undoubtedly a high paying industry and has competitive reward schemes in Sub-saharan Africa. The industry pays decent wages and arguably “living wages” in African terms. However, majority of employees are still dissatisfied with their pay and remuneration. In my studies and reward practice, I have observed quite a lot of misperceptions myths and misunderstanding (‘3Ms’) surrounding salaries, rewards and compensation in the mining industry. This observation is possibly a microcosm of what happens elsewhere. The ‘3Ms’ rob employees, managers and leaders of the good intentions, mouth-watering and garnishing effects when we sit at the dining table of stupendous rewards, remunerations, compensation or benefits. Six of my ‘3Ms’ are discussed in the ensuing pages.

One, workers always want higher pay! This is a common misperception – either on the part of top management or staff. This is further from the truth the more I drill down my engagements on the subject. A friend once hinted me about his profound unhappiness about a job he had been in barely few months. I asked why, he said “I realised I was short-changed in my offer – I am not paid at the right salary”. I went ‘huh?’ Then as we conversed, it became apparently clear that he had compared his salary with that of another similar role and realized that relatively he was receiving a lower salary. That made him feel demoralized. Have you felt that before? Probably. The issue is that despite generous pay levels, employees would not be happy if they do not perceive fairness around salaries and benefits. It is the bane of most agitations around rewards. So a sense of unfairness could sabotage the generous packages offered by employees.

 

Two, salaries are confidential. Are we really sure that the pay is confidential to fellow employees, to Social Security staff, Tax authorities, Auditors, spouses, reward managers? Some corporations attempt to conceal salary information in order to prevent employees from comparing same. However, as you would note human beings talk, so expect your employees to volunteer information to either their colleagues, spouses and so on and so forth. Yes, my salary is personal and private, but is it truly confidential? There are express statutory requirements in other jurisdictions about the declassification of salaries and their publication. In the absence of such legal restrictions, the question of confidentiality of salaries in contemporary times has come under the microscope. To deepen the sense of fairness and engender a true appreciation of the paychecks, can employers tone down on the incessant requirement of “secrecy” of salaries and explore more transparent approaches? Afterall, who doesn’t know the salary of the President of the Republic, the salary of ministers of state, the income of CEOs of listed companies. And who doesn’t know or think that the CEO must be paid much higher than the shop floor employee? There must be some reasonable and cautious transparency on pay levels to win back the appreciation of workers.

 

Three, the biggest motivator is the money, the rest are subservient! This is what Messi talked about. According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in 1985, researchers Richard Ryan noted that students who were offered financial prizes to solve complex puzzles were less successful than a control group doing the puzzles for fun. Ryan and Deci classified the phenomenon whereby extrinsic rewards such as money inhibits a person’s motivation to perform a task as “Oversimplification.”  They noted that by paying the puzzle enthusiasts they became externally (rather than internally) driven. They concluded that to elicit creativity, innovation and peak performance, employees need to derive ultimate pleasure from the task itself and not to be distracted by the cash. In most companies where innovation is a much-cherished corporate goal, companies have learnt to detach creative ventures from salaries by giving paid time to employees to enable them to just think and create. That’s how Google and LinkedIn approached the issue by allowing employees to explore their interest and creative instincts which has led to products such as Gmail, Google Maps, Google Reader amongst others. In essence, employees want managers to put them where they fit, i.e. “position me where my aptitudes and talents are naturally aligned to the goals”. Unfortunately, in an age where coming by decent jobs is hard to find, most people settle for anything in the hope of landing the dream job. In some cases, this “stop gap measure and humble beginning” makes sense but in doing so you risk an entire destiny of creativity and innovation if you fail to journey ultimately into your dream job. This is a bridge that must ideally be crossed at an early stage in our upbringing through the help of parents, educationists and career coaches. Our inability to work in an area of our passion leads often to what practitioners call underemployment. “Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid” (Anon). You can however be placed in uncharttered territories as a challenge to unearth hidden talents – that also has its place.

 

Four, men work relatively harder than women! Who believes this in this day and age? You would probably get no one openly owing up but data on gender pay inequality gives credence to this. I have worked under women whose performance at the top of the organization did not just match but outclassed their male counterparts. One of such women is Joyce Aryee, a former Chief Executive Officer of the Ghana Chamber of Mines; the first female to hold such a position and also one of the foremost Ghanaian women named in the list of 100 Global Inspiration Women in Mining in the world a couple of years ago. The notion of gender pay disparity is an area that has been receiving a lot of traction amongst reward practitioners and researchers in the past years. In 2017, pay controversies which erupted at the BBC revealed that on the average, men earned 9.3% more than women at a time when the national average of the gender pay gap was 18%. There is an obvious significant difference in the physiology of females, part of which predisposes career females who become nursing mothers to some real challenges, especially in our part of the world where issues of family planning, maternal/infant mortality and morbidity amidst the cultural expectations are real threats to career development and consequent compensation.

 

Five, remuneration must be rigid and routine. I was in a job evaluation class years ago when the trainer – Kwadwo Asare Bediako (a HR guru and one of my distant mentors) intoned: “In Ghana we are too rigid with rewards but so flexible with our structures (“organizational structure”) – why is that?” (emphasis mine). The debate went on for a while in the class and it became apparent that the we needed to reverse the approach in order to nib in the bud some of the workplace agitations on salaries. Leaders, managers, reward and HR practitioners should be flexible with rewards and rather firm on the structure. Organizational behaviour theorists have indicated that flexible reward practices are more incentivizing than the ones that have become routine. As observed by Chamorro-Premuzic: “If a company get into a cycle of handing out a 10% bonus this year, 15% next and so on. The year the employee gets a 5% bonus, what was supposed to be an incentive actually becomes a de-motivator.” When you give reasonably smaller rewards at ‘unplanned’ periods in the year, it would create the needed vibe in the workplace – however when that also becomes routine it would lose its motivating effect. The magic therefore is to keep alive the surprise element in your reward and remuneration strategy.

Leadership and managerial will is at the heart of the matter in causing a meaningful change to the rhetoric on remuneration. I would wrap up this piece in my next episode on LinkedIn titled: “Salary is not the game changer!”.

Daniel may be contacted with comments on agyen.tweneboah@gmail.com