Structure began with the initial first grade class. After sorting the children and lining up all the first graders by height, it looked like everything was perfect. The shortest child was in front and the tallest child was at the end. All were in order. When the first grade marched out for lunch, the line was led by Andy, Beth, Carlos, Doris, Eddie, Felicia and Gus. Each in sequence was taller than the one before, so every child could see over the head of the one in front of them. They made a nice neat orderly class when they lined up.
But it changed next year. In second grade, Beth had grown faster than Andy or Carlos and was now taller than both of them who stood flanking her. Doris had not grown at all, so she could not see over the taller three who used to be shorter when they lined up in front of her. The same kind of thing happened with the rest of the class. For example, Eddie grew a lot more than Felicia and Gus did, so he towered over them, too. The nice neat line they made last year no longer worked.
This upset the school board President. These children were in the same class. They were put in proper order when they were initially together in first grade. Now, they were still together as they began second grade a year later, but they were in disorder: their new heights messed up the nice neat orderly line created last year. All the children in the same grade were supposed to grow at the exact same pace so as to stay constant in identical relationship to each other, weren’t they? That was the angry question raised at the next school board meeting.
Well, no, replied an old teacher. Kids grow at different rates. The height order sequence that worked once before won’t remain identical for all time, particularly not after they have grown for a while. Patterns found in the past will not always persist infinitely into the future. Things change, and those changes are not usually neat, orderly, consistent, symmetrical or predictable.
This was unwelcome advice. It was ignored, of course. Even unto today, some children there stretch high, walking on tiptoes, to appear taller while others slouch and cringe to look smaller. I think the place was called Dravrah, or maybe it was Lana. Whichever it was, you can generally recognize their graduates, because they share a certain look, exhibit a particular attitude and tend to cluster in specific occupational categories where they can assure themselves that everything is under control.
What are we doing when we design compensation systems this way?
E. James (Jim) Brennan is Senior Associate of ERI Economic Research Institute, the premier publisher of interactive pay and living-cost surveys. Semi-retired after over 40 years in HR corporate and consulting roles throughout the U.S. and Canada, he’s pretty much been there done that (articles, books, speeches, seminars, radio/TV, advisory posts, in-trial expert witness stuff, etc.), and will express his opinion on almost anything.
Creative Commons image "Young Actors Light Up Stage" by familymwr