When your company’s incentive system backfires; Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital is able to produce world-class outcomes at a fraction of the cost of other hospitals. There are no incentives based on volume or revenue for its surgeons and other employees. Purpose is the driver while profits are the enabler

When your company’s incentive system backfires

How many times have you seen an incentive system produce the exact opposite of the desired behaviour? Why does this happen? And why can’t organisations see, let alone fix, these problems?



How many times have you seen an incentive system produce the exact opposite of the desired behaviour? Why does this happen? And why can’t organisations see, let alone fix, these problems?

Here’s one example of how incentive systems can backfire. Srikanth went to visit a client in an Asian city. The client suggested that Srikanth catch a bus to his factory. He went to the bus stop and waited. Several buses whizzed by without stopping, even though they all had plenty of empty seats. After half a dozen buses failed to stop. Srikanth finally caught a cab.

Upon arriving late at the factory, he apologised to the client and told him the cause for his delay. The client laughed and said, “The driver’s bonus depends on whether or not he reaches his destination on time. So when drivers find themselves running behind schedule during peak hours, they do not bother picking up passengers.”

This was the height of insanity — an incentive system that succeeded only in defeating its purpose.

During rush hour, the exact time when more passengers needed to be picked up, it was better for the driver to leave them on the curb. Frustrated citizens, lost revenue and increased costs, all thanks to a misaligned incentive system. Furthermore, everyone seemed to be aware of the problem except the organisation that ran the buses. Or, equally baffling, the company knew about the issue but chose to ignore it.


Ever since this incident, we have become more attuned to seeing misalignments between a company’s purpose and what its employees actually do. And it turns out this problem is far more widespread than we realised.

Here are a few common examples:

Bankers maximise their bonuses while forgetting about the health and integrity of the financial system.

Call-centre staff hurry customers off the line or transfer them so the employees can meet their quota of calls per hour.

Salespeople maximise their commissions and forget about what best meets the client’s needs or what is best aligned with the firm’s capabilities. When top sales executives are incentivised to maximise their bonuses and options, the result is “channel stuffing”, in other words, overloading retailers with goods just before the end of reporting periods.

Whenever production is incentivised in terms of the number of units produced or the cost per unit, the result is simply more inventory, more cash tied up in inventory and less flexibility in coping with changing demand.

Clearly, what we have listed here is just the tip of the iceberg. So what can organisations do to correct these mismatches?


The first step is simply awareness.

Once management teams understand the behaviours that are driven by their measurement and reward systems, they can calibrate them to make sure they’re incentivising exactly the outcomes the firm desires.

Executives should remind managers and employees alike of what should be measured and rewarded. They should also be on the lookout for any undesirable behaviours to see if they can be traced back to the company’s reward systems.

But even the best-designed incentive systems can only go so far. In the final analysis, it is essential that leaders have a strong inner compass to do the right thing, regardless of any measurement system. Purpose must shine through loud and clear.

Bangalore’s Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital is one such organisation. Its vision, as articulated on its website, is “affordable, quality health care for the masses worldwide.”

Despite the fact that it is much cheaper than comparable Indian hospitals, and only 40 per cent of its patients pay full fees for care, Narayana Hrudayalaya is a profitable organisation.

Why? The hospital started with the question, “How can we provide quality, affordable care to the masses?”, rather than “How do we maximise stockholder returns by designing the right incentives?”

That led to a strategy focused on both lowering costs and attracting paying patients by leveraging the hospital’s reputation for high-quality care. The surplus gained from these full-paying patients helps subsidise the cost of care for everyone else.

With the specialisation of its surgeons and the large volume of operations they perform, Narayana Hrudayalaya is able to produce world-class outcomes at a fraction of the cost of other hospitals. There are no incentives based on volume or revenue for its surgeons and other employees. Purpose is the driver while profits are the enabler.

In the end, there are no easy answers. On one hand, good measurement systems are needed to track progress, and incentive systems are needed to motivate and align people. On the other hand, it is far more important to stay true to the purpose of your organisation.

We believe the pendulum has swung too far towards incentives, and that balance must be restored.© Harvard Business School Publishing Corp

Srikanth Srinivas is a retired management consultant and Vijay Govindarajan is a professor of international business at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: