Do This, Not That: Market Versus Social Norms

Dan Ariely makes a distinction between market norms and social norms in the fourth chapter of Predictably Irrational. He touches briefly upon the way that employers mix their messages, dangerously breaking social contracts and making things about money when they are attempting to lead a socially-driven organization.

As the book documents, operating on market norms (i.e., thinking about the money I’m getting in return for the activity I’m doing) can damage productivity even when compensation is considered adequate. But worst of all, it can damage relationships when we assumed we were operating on higher terms–social norms like trust, reciprocity, and friendship. And we can’t mix the two: once we perceive that our efforts are being valued according to market norms, that’s the mindset we use for the entire interaction.

The next era of commerce will not be kind to organizations that depend on market norms, except as perhaps a back end, business-to-business protocol. For the most part, those things that are driven by competition, price, and data can be outsourced to computers and become a secondary function of people-facing businesses, businesses that use humans for those things humans are uniquely capable of accomplishing.

If you’re still using market norms to run your business, it’s best to start weeding them out now, before they relieve you of all your self-motivated people and leave you with half-hearted key-punchers.

Here are a few “do this, not that” guidelines for common business practices:

  1. Pay healthy salaries, don’t track hours. Some businesses require hour tracking, but to the extent that it’s possible your people shouldn’t identify the time they put in with dollar amounts. Doing so puts them in a market mindset: Am I getting enough money to be worth what I’m doing? Paying healthy salaries instead removes market questions from their minds, and has the potential to make the rare transformation of money into a social contract: the business is a community that takes care of your needs, rather than an employer compensating you for your activity. This is the genius behind Netflix’s policy to pay employees as much as they would pay to keep them: there’s no need for employees to ever negotiate salary or think about how much their work is worth, so they operate on a basis of trust and social contract rather than constantly competing with the employer for a fair wage. Even better if employees have direct deposit, where the money simply appears in their accounts as if by magic.
  2. Appeal to social contract, don’t talk about money. It should go without saying that you should never bring up the fact that you’re paying an employee, or use money as a bargaining chip for a change in behavior. They’re already aware that a threat to their position in the community is a threat to their livelihood. Focus on the social contract rather than the monetary transaction. Are they letting down their co-workers? Are they hurting their ability to make a difference in the organization? Talk about those things. If you have to mention money, it’s already a lost cause. (If they’re the ones bringing money into it, you might as well address their concerns–they’re already thinking in market terms. Take it as a form of feedback on your ability to keep market norms out of your business, and consider whether the issues raised might affect other people as well.)
  3. Make your people financially secure, don’t cut costs at their expense. If your employees have to be worried about paying the rent, covering bills, and eating, then they are already thinking about their jobs in terms of market norms. If you’re going to employ someone, make sure you’re ready to pay enough that they don’t have to be concerned about the basics of life. That includes health care, child care, and retirement. Ariely and James Heyman report that people who perceived themselves as paid inadequately lost as much as a third of their productivity at a very simple mechanical task (forget creative problem solving), and that’s without factoring in any worries about feeding their children. And if Costco is any indication, paying a living wage is a clear path to sustainable business.
  4. Share successes, don’t pay bonuses. This is a tricky one: Traditionally, bonuses are the way you share successes. But paying bonuses can create a clear line between the actions of an employee and the money, turning the action into market-regulated action rather than social-regulated action. There are different ways of accomplishing essentially the same thing. One is to reframe the concept of compensation entirely, as with my post on taxation. If employees interpret the amount they earn not as a payment from you but as something they are accomplishing with you, it may be possible to avoid activating market norms. Another way is to award the bonus as an in-kind gift–but this is fraught with pitfalls. Having the employee choose the gift causes the employee to think about the monetary value; choosing the gift for the employee puts one in danger of choosing something the employee doesn’t want or need; and having co-workers choose may invite comparison and market-norm thinking among the co-workers.
  5. Show loyalty, don’t dig moats. There are already a lot of financial obstacles to leaving a job. Creating new ones causes your people to think about the job in terms of their financial need instead of thinking about the social contract. Instead, you should make it as easy as possible for them to leave–and challenge yourself to convince them they shouldn’t. To the extent your people feel that they are with you by choice and not by necessity, they will be more likely to act on social norms instead of market norms.

It can be difficult to manage the financial needs of the business while operating on social norms, but undermining the social norms can quickly undo all the effort you’ve placed into creating them. If you start by thinking of your organization as a community, a family, or a nation, you will be on more solid ground. And when in doubt, leave the money out of it.