Ajax, Odysseus, and philosophical approaches to fair compensation

This week I was lucky enough to wiggle my way into a lunch and learn with Dr. Paul Woodruff, among many things, the author of The Ajax Dilemma: Justice, Fairness, and Rewards.

The lunch and learn was on the topic of fairness, and Dr. Woodruff went over the story of Ajax, Odysseus, and Achilles’ armor.  He used the story as a way to talk about the fairness of compensation, what should be compensated more – loyalty or performance, and why newly brought superstars are compensated much higher based on their potential contribution vs. a hard-working employee that’s been contributing steadily for a very long time.

I basically see a number of problems with using that example.

First, I believe that the reward in question for Ajax was too far outside of the normal rewards which are sought after in today’s corporate culture.  Dr. Woodruff’s argument is that Ajax both did not understand the value of Odysseus to the Greek Army, and felt like he was taken for granted.  Both are interesting assumptions and fun to ponder, but as we bring the example into today’s era, we have to deal with reality.  And it is such that if what’s at stake is a reward far outside of the norm, say 100 years worth of someone’s salary, all sensitivities be damned – virtually everyone’s going all out for it, and no amount of understanding or appreciation can adequately substitute for the reward.  That is not a typical scenario in a corporate environment.

What people are typically after is something smaller, much more attainable, far more tangible.  Employees typically feel unappreciated, underpaid, overworked, without purpose.  I do not believe that example of Ajax applies here.

Which brings me to the second problem I see with this scenario – intrinsic motivation vs. taking money off the table.  I have to keep referring to Daniel Pink’s Drive and as I previously pointed out, one of the lesser appreciate points of his book – before people can be intrinsically motivated, they have to be paid enough to take money off the table.  The reason why I think this is in play here, is because too often, companies are trying to design recognition and rewards programs around this misunderstanding and trying to substitute gratitude for this “taking money off the table.”  It can’t be done. You can say “thank you” all you want, but if the employee worries about paying bills, or not being able to afford a vacation, no amount of thank yous will help the employee feel appreciated, or properly compensated.

So I don’t agree with Dr. Woodruff’s conclusions in the case where the reward is so large that almost everyone will just go for it.  And I don’t agree with him in the case where monetary compensation is still very much on the table and the employee has to worry about anything else but the job at hand.

The question, to me, is whether Dr. Woodruff’s conclusions apply in the case of an employee for whom the compensation is enough to be off the table, and the reward is relatively small.  In that instance, I think Pink has it right and antiquity in Dr. Woodruff’s interpretation supports it – it’s not about the money, or the armor itself, it’s about recognition, respect, honor, satisfaction, gratitude.

Granted, this does open up a host of other issues that have to be resolved – like what is proper and sufficient compensation, and how does one offer it, and is it really enough, etc.  These questions might be tough to answer, but in the long run, they are worth researching because building a successful organization depends on it.  The alternative, I feel, is to simply run around in circles, wondering why nothing works and morale plummets.


About Vadim

I'd like to have something really impressive to say here, but it's just not in the cards. Maybe later.
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