View from HR: Beware of conventional wisdom in the workplace

Conventional wisdom is the body of generally accepted beliefs that we use without thinking. Conventional wisdom gives us shortcut answers to common situations in the workplace.

One piece of conventional wisdom we overuse is the idea people will always react to pay incentives. Any sales or behavioral challenge can be fixed with the right incentives, some say. Pay people more to achieve more. Pay a bonus if we meet a complicated formula (even if it has little to do with any one individual’s effort). Set an incentive target that might be reached only if short-term decision-making crowds out long-term success.

The conventional wisdom that all of us are coin-operated does more harm than good. Sure, we want to earn a good living, to progress, to achieve ... but the idea that moving compensation to variable from fixed will dramatically change the right behaviors in the right direction too often falls short.

It remains part of our conventional wisdom; maybe because it works sometimes and today’s top leaders were often managed that way.

Poor history

Other forms of conventional wisdom with poor histories:

People like me therefore they respect me. I can get a sense of an applicant’s true character in an interview. People are afraid of the truth so I protect them from our company’s financial troubles. People cannot understand business so I do not try to explain our market strategies. If we give people discretion and choice, they will take advantage. If I let them see I have doubts or lack answers, they will not follow me. I give them a paycheck every two weeks ... that should be enough! I praise only for the big wins so everyone will swing for the fence. If more people thought like me, this world would function better. Meetings are a waste of time. If I give this employee a glowing performance review and a pay raise, their work will improve. I communicated this message twice already, so get with the program!

Conventional wisdom might provide helpful shortcuts, but which ones?

Worn out. If you choose conventional wisdom to solve a hard problem, one that has resisted your best efforts so far, conventional wisdom might be the wrong choice. Conventional wisdom assumes an average problem involving average players with average attitudes. It also assumes you are willing to accept the fallout created any time you take a shortcut. In other words, problems that resist easy solutions are not good candidates for conventional wisdom.

Lazy. Creativity and innovation are hard, especially when focused on real business opportunities. Conventional wisdom is neither creative nor innovative. Blending conventional wisdom with innovation can be a very bad mix. For example, applying old and tired incentive pay concepts to a new product group might not work. Too often the strategy and product look good, but the execution follows unsuccessful past patterns.

Trust. Applying conventional wisdom to people’s individual needs will not build trust. No one wants to be managed by shortcuts.

Get the best from conventional wisdom by understanding its limitations.

Bruce Clarke, J.D., is CEO of CAI, helping more than 1,000 North Carolina employers maximize employee engagement and minimize employer liability. For more information, visit