Aligning goals and incentives–a counter example

I work as a part-time instructor on software courses for several professional training companies. This post is about the salary incentives (or non existence thereof) applied by one of those companies. To be be succinct, I will call this company ‘Big Training Co’.

Just as the other companies, Big Training Co employs instructors such as me to teach several professional training courses at their own facilities. I teach mainly software development-related topics like web applications, programming languages, computer networks and so on. A typical course lasts between 3 and 10 days, has from 5 to 20 students, and involves both lessons and exercises. The course contents are pre-designed and provided by tech companies like Microsoft, Oracle and SAP. Instructors have a limited power to adapt the content on the way.

Once the last class is over, the students complete a survey about the course. This survey asks about the quality of the teacher, the facilities, the course content, and other things. Big Training Co pays you according to the survey results.

I think paying the teacher according to the survey results is great, because it makes him more likely to apply himself at making the best course possible, preparing the topics in advance, making the students happy–and a big etcetera of reasons taken from the whole “aligning incentives with objectives” speech.

Not only am I willing to let my performance as a teacher to be measured and paid accordingly, but I agree that some questions about the learning environment should also be taken into account. For instance, the instructor should make sure the computers are working properly before starting the course, and ask Big Training Co to repair them if that is not the case. Thus, questions like “did the computers work ok?” should be used to pay the instructor as well, though maybe not weighing the same as the questions regarding the instructor himself.

What I don’t agree with is that Big Training Co uses the whole survey to pay you. Furthermore, all the questions are weighed equally. Among them there are questions like “technical depth of the training content”, “relevance of the labs (exercises) to real world situations” and “performance of the technology used in the classroom (hardware/software)”. These questions address issues you don’t control completely. Even worse, if you get 90% of the maximum grade or below, you get the minimum pay. Grading and paying the instructor in this way is just wrong.

The course content is given “as is” to the instructor. You don’t have the power to select nor change it, only a limited power to adapt it on the way once you have spoken to the students and assessed their capabilities. Likewise, you are given a classroom and have the power to ask Big Training Co to repair malfunctioning equipment; however, you don’t have complete control over the Big Training Co staff, what they do, or how they do it. They make mistakes and, sometimes, the computers don’t work even if you try and repair them. Even if you somehow manage to address all this issues, and have the luck to teach a course all the students love, the scale used to pay you means having just one or two questions below 50% means you are most likely getting the minimum.

This makes the whole process frustrating for the teacher. The last course I gave ended with great feedback from the students. Not only I achieved the best score available on the “instructor capabilities” questions, but I also got comments like “[the instructor] has an excellent level in his knowledge and is very efficient while teaching” and “excellent, a lot of experience in the real world”. However, the computers and the internet connection didn’t work as expected. After realizing this the day before the course started, I arrived 2 hours early to the first class to try and repair them with the help of the staff. We had only a limited success, and the company decided to change the classroom for the next day. On the second day I arrived 2 hours early again, and again there were problems. Fast forward to the last day, and I was there 3 hour early to check everything was ok (I have other responsibilities as well.) Because of these issues, I got a 8.12 out of 9, which means… I got the minimum pay. Yes, quite a strange scale to measure your performance.

The fact that you are qualified using all questions, that they all weigh the same, and that the scale gives you minimum pay if you get 90% or below, means that your salary is just random. Well, almost random, because your are most likely getting the minimum pay no matter what you do. That is *not* aligning incentives with objectives. Using this system, instructors are almost equally likely to get minimum pay when they make and effort and when they don’t.

Maybe other instructors think differently, but to evaluate whether to teach a course at Big Training Co, I compare my opportunity cost with the minimum pay. And if I do decide to teach the course, I won’t do anything besides teaching the course the best I can –because I like to do so, not because it gives me the chance to get a better pay. I will never again try to have the computers working, because it just doesn’t make my pay better, and I don’t like to work for free.

Don’t get me wrong, I love teaching. It is one of the most fulfilling things I do. Besides knowing the course topic well enough, the job as instructor is all about engaging the students’ attention, which is tough and thus very challenging and fun. In time, you come to master several techniques to attract and maintain the attention of the class, to make them laugh, or to explain a complex topic in different ways until the students get it. I love to challenge myself on keeping the students entertained however boring the topic may seem to them at first. Maybe I manage to do it because I find the topics very entertaining myself and somehow I convey that impression to the students. I just love teaching.

However, if I were the person in charge of choosing how to pay the instructors at Big Training Co, I would do it in a way that the best instructors chose to work with me and not against me. This is currently not the case.

2 thoughts on “Aligning goals and incentives–a counter example

  1. That’s not very encouraging and motivating for the instructors. A lot goes behind the scenes while preparing for training material, collecting the relevant tools and conducting of a class. But that’s something only people involved know. Hope people realise your worth soon!

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