Productivity-target difficulty, target-based pay, and outside-the-box thinking

R. Alan Webb, Michael G. Williamson, Yue Zhang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In an environment where individual productivity can be increased through efforts directed at a conventional task approach and more efficient task approaches that can be identified by thinking outside-the-box, we examine the effects of productivitytarget difficulty and pay contingent on meeting and beating this target (i.e., target-based pay). We argue that while challenging targets and target-based pay can hinder the discovery of production efficiencies, they can motivate high productive effort whereby individuals work harder and more productively using either the conventional task approach or more efficient task approaches when discovered. Results of a laboratory experiment support our predictions. Individuals assigned an easy productivity target and paid a fixed wage identify a greater number of production efficiencies than those with either challenging targets or target-based pay. However, individuals with challenging targets and/or target-based pay have higher productivity per production efficiency discovered, suggesting these control tools better motivate productive effort. Collectively, our results suggest that the ultimate effectiveness of these control tools will likely hinge on the importance of promoting the discovery of production efficiencies relative to motivating productive effort. In doing so, our results provide a better understanding of conflicting prescriptions from the practitioner literature and business press.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1433-1457
Number of pages25
JournalAccounting Review
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Incentives
  • Outside-the-box thinking
  • Productivity
  • Targets

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Accounting
  • Finance
  • Economics and Econometrics


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