Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Class Use of Rules, Incentives, and Wisdom

I am reading Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe's excellent Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. They promote Aristotle's vision of doing things according to practical wisdom. They contrast practical wisdom with the two dominant ways that we try to motivate and regulate action today - rules and incentives.

So here is my half-developed thought from reading this contrast:

Rules regulate proles.

Incentives motivate managers.

Wisdom guides professionals.


Kerri said...

Why wouldn't incentives also motivate proles?

Here's a thought: Professionals are at all three levels, so are guided by wisdom, motivated by incentives, AND yet still regulated by the rules (unless, perhaps, they are at the very very top of their organization--but, in theory, they are still subject to laws.)

I guess the proles and managers who consider the next "level" are the ones who get promoted.

gruntled said...

This is still a half-formed thought, and I welcome your suggestion. What I have in mind is how the institution works, rather than what moves the individual. The institution controls proles by rules, and controls managers by incentives. Professionals are supposed to control themselves.

Kerri said...

Ah, thinking about it from the institution, that makes more sense. I read your original comment from an individual's viewpoint.

Where do you draw the line between a manager and a professional?

gruntled said...

Ah, you invite me to ride one of my favorite hobby horses. Here is a start on what I mean. There is much more:

Sister Edith said...

I've been thinking about some of these topics from the perspective of the college classroom. Books such as Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do promote a viewpoint somewhere between the wisdom of the professional and the incentives of managers. In many college settings - not so much in elite school, but especially in large class settings, and with first generation college students.

In part, this is a matter of managing large numbers of students. But management is a social interaction; the institution chooses methods, in part, on the basis of their efficacy. One of my colleagues has a section of his syllabus titled "the fine print" which resembles a contract. With students who rarely show wisdom about their academic pursuit and are not motivated by the usual incentives of grades and learning, he has developed a system of rules.

He is highly rated: at this institution, our students seem to be "proles" who prefer to be regulated than to have charge of their own learning.

One could make the case that helping them develop the micro-skills of everyday life so that they can control themselves to respond to incentives is one task of our colleges.

gruntled said...

Sister Edith, I always welcome your insights.

There is a long sociological literature about how working class families and schools train their children to obey. This is treated as training for the real world. I have never read about a working class college doing the same, but I suppose that makes sense. Perhaps the proprietary schools especially work this way.

The same would go for middle managers trained at large universities. If they learn to be motivated by extrinsic rewards in college, they will fit right in in corporate work.

Schwartz and Sharpe's point is that organizations motivated by incentives drive out trust, moral will, and wisdom.

Kerri said...

Interesting post. I missed that one-- thanks for pointing me there.

I confess that one of Lamont's categories perplexes me: "Cultural and social specialists, private sector, profit-related occupations, public and non-profit sectors"

Why are profit-related occupations and non-profit sectors in the same box? I admit I haven't read the book, but on the surface that doesn't sit well with me. Especially because there was an antecedent category with just public peeps. I appreciate any clarification you can offer.