Organization Design, Proximity, and Productivity Responses to Upward Social Comparison


Organization Science


Departments: Strategy & Business Policy, GREGHEC (CNRS)

Keywords: Incentives, Social Comparison Costs, Envy, Productivity, Organization Design

We investigate the mechanisms that shape social comparison in organizations and generate socialcomparison costs. In particular, we focus on heterogeneity in the strength and type of incentivesand argue that, from an efficient design perspective, such variance in rewards is a double edgedsword. While the sorting and incentive effects that result may increase productivity, the socialcomparison processes that arise may dampen it. We posit that the mechanisms underlying thesebehavioral costs are shaped not only by the magnitude of reward variance, but by the formal andinformal design elements shaping the distance of advantaged peers. In other words, the moreproximate socially, structurally or geographically are those to whom one socially compares, thelarger the behavioral response. Empirically, we use an unanticipated event during which outlets ofa bank, previously operating under essentially homogenous incentives, were assigned totournament groups with differing ex ante probabilities of winning a prize—an event that increasesvariance in awards and hence generates an impetus for social comparison. We find that units withmore socially, geographically, and structurally proximate peers assigned to ‘advantaged’tournament groups decreased their productivity. We discuss implications of these results fororganizational design and boundaries