Baffled by bankers’ bonuses? Read agency theory

I am writing this post, as is my wont, to record some notes from a paper I read:

Azevado, R.E and Akdere, M.  (2011). Examining Agency Theory in Training and Development: Understanding Self-Interest Behaviors in the Organization.  Human Resources Development Review, Volume No Not Known, 18 pages. If you want a copy, both authors are presently at the University of Minnesota.

I read the paper because agency theory is the theory behind the big bonuses that are provoking so much controversy.

The application of agency theory to Training is new and nothing to do with bonuses.  But I wanted to tidy up my own thinking about agency theory and if you do too, I’d recommend reading Azevado and Akdere’s paper.  They explain the basic precepts of that school of thinking very well.

I don’t like agency theory and I wanted to pinpoint exactly why I think it is misguided.  I’ve boiled my objections down to three essential points:  the distaste agency theorists have for self-interest, their belief in a zero-sum game, and their belief that the world is so static and unchanging that any one person knows best.

Self-interest

Adam Smith said:

“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”.

Some people are sincerely concerned about self-interest, and like the far left, so are agency theorists.

Personally, I am delighted that the self-interest of the butcher, the baker and the brewer leads to a butcher, a bakery and a pub on the high street. I believe in caveat emptor (buyer beware) but I am not panicking that the butcher, the baker and the brewer might from time-to-time charge me 1p too much.

I also don’t panic that today the butcher tries to sell me something that he is trying to ‘move’.  Provided he has taken my self-interest into account and sold me something to fit my needs, we are ‘square’.

I get my needs met now. I get my needs met over the long term because his shop stays open.  And my business does better because he can buy from me!

(Funny that – the last female butcher that I met was my own grandmother.)

Generativity vs zero-sum gains

Agency theorists begin with an assumption that if I pursue my self-interest, then I am not pursuing yours.

Or at least, they believe that inherent in belonging to an organization is the need for the organization to ask me not to pursue my self-interest in some form or another.

It certainly is the case, for example in a soccer game, that I shouldn’t pass the ball to the opposition on purpose, or showing off to my mates in the crowd and not pay attention to the game.

But why should my self-interest be sacrificed as a matter of principle or practice?  If we need to sacrifice anything, let’s compromise and make sacrifices all round.  And wouldn’t it better to put our efforts into making a business environment which is rich enough for us all to pursue our self-interest?

To take a simple example, does it matter if I am miner, metallurgist, engineer, accountant or diamond cutter, provided that all of us work together to mine the diamonds safely and sell them profitably to people who want them?

I’ve found that where people stand on this point is fairly key to their choice of work and choice of organization.  Some people want quick returns. They really don’t believe an organization is more than the sum of its parts.  So be it. We’ll help them go where they need to go.

Those of us who don’t believe that life is zero sum game should stay away from organizations run in terms of agency theory. We will hate them.  And we need to put our money where our mouth is. We have to make our own organizations as good as we want them to be – and successful commercially.

‘Gap’ thinking vs positive management

Agency theory seems tremendously old school to me in the notion that there is a right way to do things and that someone somewhere knows what this right thing is.

Now there are definitely wrong ways to do things.  There have to be things we wouldn’t countenance no matter what.

Expertise is also real. And it takes time, a long time to learn.  Indeed, good organizations arrange themselves so that people can develop expertise and learn from each other.

But the idea that we know the whole answer and we can insist that people do things our way is very unrealistic.  If it was ever possible, it is not possible in today’s world where we rely on networks of experts.  We each bring our own perspective to a problem and we are richer for it.

Returning to agency theory, if no one knows what the best answer is until we have discussed, how do we evaluate whether our agents are pursuing our interests vigorously?

Worse, if we do not allow the room to work out what our interests are, haven’t we built into the organization the very thing that we fear most – that our agents withhold information that is valuable to us?

So in short, these are my three objections to agency theory.

I think self-interest is good, not bad.  We want people to think about their self-interest because we will have a healthier, sounder and more resilient organization (and economy).

I don’t see the world as a zero-sum game. I don’t see the world as a cake to be divided up.  At best I see the world as having no cake until we’ve baked it.  And there are cakes and cakes. Real wizards will make us a cake even when the ingredients for their favourite recipe are not available.

I don’t think we know upfront what our self-interest is.  Good organizations are forum where negotiations and bargaining lead to mutually prosperous ventures.

How does any of this help me understand bankers’ bonuses?  Well they are mystery, to be sure.    Agency theory is not standard organization and management theory but to turn away from thinking that captures attention with promises of large rewards, we need not only an alternative but an understanding of the thinking itself.  Do read Azevado and Akdere’s paper.  I found it helpful even though, or possibly because it was about the less emotive topic of Training.

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One Comment

  1. “…the distaste agency theorists have for self-interest, their belief in a zero-sum game, and their belief that the world is so static and unchanging that any one person knows best.”

    I am not sure what you mean by ‘agency theory’ but do not what ‘principal-agent modelling’ means. I will now assume that these two labels are synonymous. In that case, the variant of ‘agency theory’ you propose is one that I emphatically do neither recognise nor can pigeonhole.

    Principle-agent theory is emphatically grounded in self-interest and the perspective of the rational actor, as is all contemporary economic theory.

    It does NOT assume a zero-sum situation, and instead is very much predicated on attainable gains from trade. In fact, economic reasoning abhors zero sum situations in a manner similar to how Aristotelian physics abhors a vacuum.

    Principle-agent modelling like all economic theory assumes that the world is static in some short run. But any competent user of such models know that evolving contingencies create a need for a recontracting option.

    That said, I freely grant that the magnitude of executive compensation, and the rationalising of bonuses regardless of measured performance, are grave problems of contemporary corporate governance.

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