Making sense of incentive experiences: a discourse analysis of middle managers’ accounts

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Fives, Olive
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University College Cork
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Incentives (inducements to motivate performance) are a pervasive and persistent feature of middle management compensation in spite of on-going challenges to their efficacy, cost, and more recently, their impact on employees. Most research to date focuses on the achievement of organisational outcomes with very little examination of employees’ experience of incentive policy, content or practice. This thesis presents an empirical investigation of employee experiences of financial incentives in the workplace to surface richer, more nuanced insights and specifically to explore middle managers sensemaking about their experiences of and reactions to incentive practices. Understanding more about middle managers’ sensemaking about incentives will contribute to our understanding of the effects of these instruments (and other HRM practices) on the employment relationship. This study adopts a social constructionist ontology, qualitative methodology and discourse analysis method to examine middle managers’ sensemaking of workplace incentives within the micro context of the organisation and macro context of wider managerialist discourses. Selected data from the transcripts of interviews with 17 participants from different organisations and sectors is subjected to discourse analysis. The research addresses the following questions: What are middle managers’ discursive constructions of incentives and how are these are drawn upon and deployed in sensemaking of incentive practices? To what extent do dominant incentive discourses of instrumentality, meritocracy, equity etc. feature in accounts and how are these discourses mobilised by participants? Looking inside the ‘black box’ of participant interpretations of and reactions to incentives, how do they think and feel about incentives and incentive events? How are these sensemaking constructions, perceptions and (re)actions mobilised in identity construction? viii This thesis presents five main findings. First instrumental motivation theories do not fully describe how middle managers experience incentives: while instrumental economic and psychological motivation theories can explain the effects of simple piece rate incentives for discrete independent tasks, this is less true for complex, multi-layered incentives for interdependent, difficult to measure tasks. Second, incentives affect employees’ interpretation of both explicit economic exchanges and implicit social exchanges in the workplace: although set up as a straightforward economic exchange of reward for goals reached, incentive experiences involve a reciprocal exchange of both tangible and intangible resources over time. Third, incentive awards and practices provide sensegiving and sensebreaking cues which contribute to identity related sensemaking, not only in relation to ‘who one is’, but more often ‘who one is becoming’ or ‘who one will/can be’. Fourth, identity sensemaking by middle managers features ‘sensescanning’ (i.e. scanning for cues and interpretation of observations) more than sense-demanding or feedback seeking. Finally, a combination of future orientation, equity considerations, morale costs and identity related sensemaking points to cumulative and enduring interpretations of and reactions to incentive policy and practice. The research contributes new, illuminating insights into the practice and experience of middle management incentives, with implications for management and HR practice. This research makes a conceptual contribution by adopting a sensemaking lens to the study of employees’ perceptions of and reactions (within and to) incentive experiences to explain how a specific HR practice affects employees. This approach advances our understanding of the ‘black box’ of employee sensemaking of HRM.
Incentives , Middle managers , Discourse analysis
Fives, O. 2021. Making sense of incentive experiences: a discourse analysis of middle managers’ accounts. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.