What Would Your Employees Choose? More Money or a Better Boss?

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There was a survey done recently by Michelle McQuaid and the results were picked up by a number of media outlets and delivered as big news.

The basis of the study was, if given a choice, would your employee choose a better boss or a pay raise – and guess what they found!? Yes, 65 percent of employees say they would rather have a “Better Boss” than more money!

So, here’s my question to you — do you think this is true?

What if you went to your employees right now, today, and told them: “Look, we know based on this survey that you guys want a better boss, so we going to fire the idiot we have managing you right now and let you pick your next boss! And, because we are doing this, you don’t get a raise next year. But don’t worry —  you’ll be more engaged and happier because this next gal you pick to tell you what to do is really going to be that much better! What do you say? Are you in?”

A laughable survey?

Before you go cutting your budget for 2013 pay increases and start funneling all of that money into leadership development,  let’s look at a couple of things:

  • The person who did the survey — Michelle McQuaid – has a consulting business, and guess what she’s selling? Engagement!
  • The survey sample was a total of 1,000 folks from various demographics, and I’m sure was academically and statistically tested to be completely valid and reliable…

Unfortunately, the media outlets that pick this crap up never give the full story. That’s not their job – their job is to get you to click – and most people believe what they read. Put into context, this survey is almost laughable. One person, trying to sell her ideas, throws a survey together that just by happenstance validates what she’s saying. The Business Insider even tied Gallup into the article making it look even more valid – which causes great confusion!

Here’s how I would do this study

Here’s my real life study of this same subject. Do this for me and let me know how it turns out:

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  1. Take $2,500 cash, in stacks of $20 bills, and set them in front of an employee. Let the employee touch the money and pick it up.
  2. Then, ask this one question: “You can have a new boss – a better boss – or, right now you can have this money. Which one would you like?”
  3. Do this to 100 employees — or 1,000 (like it matters) – and tell me your results.

Here is my guarantee to you, and if it doesn’t work out this way, I’ll pay for your study: You will not have 65 percent of your employees chose a new boss! I guarantee it.

Look, I get what Michelle McQuaid is trying to do – we’ve all been drinking the engagement Kool-Aid – so now we’re supposed to believe that money no longer matters to people? Well, it does. It matters a whole lot, and don’t try and kid yourself.

Telling yourself that your employees will pick a better boss over a raise is fool’s errand and makes you look like an idiot to your executives, because they know reality. People want a better boss AND people need and want more money. More!

This originally appeared on the blog The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


9 Comments on “What Would Your Employees Choose? More Money or a Better Boss?

  1. Wouldn’t this tactic, giving money to everyone, erode the Revenue per Employee? I mean it sounds fun and certainly would make my life a bit easier.

    Everyone wants more cash, but that damn invisible hand is always working and everyone doesn’t have a RpE of $800k like Amazon. 😉

  2. Mr. Sackett, clearly you haven’t spent enough time in the trenches either working alongside people who have an “idiot boss” as you so eloquently stated or brushing up on your motivational theories that are based on hundreds of thousands of data entries collected over decades. What the survey is stating is simply this- while the employee may pick that stack of $20 bills today, the ability to engage and motivate that employee is GONE as soon as the money is spent. I’m sure as that employee puts an extra $100 on their credit card bill they aren’t thinking to themselves, “Thank goodness I got this extra money to pay down on my bill.  Can’t wait to go back to work tomorrow and be berated and abused by my boss….but it’s all work it because my credit card got a little extra this month.”  Guess what? They are STILL stuck with that moron they have to call their leader, and now their money motivation is already spent.  True engagement is created over time and rooted in a strong culture.  Hate to break it to you, but money doesn’t buy happiness.  A work environment that is centered on collaboration, recognition, appreciation, accountability, and among other things R-E-S-P-E-C-T does.  I appreciate the sentiment, but I just disagree with the laughability of this study. 

  3. Tim:
    1. How much is the person making who you are giving the $2,500.00. It they are making $20,000.00 a year they will most likely take it no matter what. It they are making $200.000 they moste likely won’t take it.
    2. Most employees who have a bad boss would most likely take the money because there are no bets that the next boss is going to be an good either. They may likel them but that does not make a great boss.
    3. Reverse the question and ask people if they have a great boss now would they take another job for a 10% raise. I have been asking that question in almost every presentation I have done in the last 5 years and people who have great bosses say that would not even think about leaving for a 10% raise.

    I think you missed it on this one.

    1. Mel, the third point you made here is spot on. Yes, more money is attractive, but when people have had bad bosses, the thought of giving up a good one seems insane, even if it does mean more money. Obviously, receiving a raise even if you have a bad boss is purely situational. However, most people would likely prefer having a better mindset if the combination of more money and a good boss is not available.

  4. I can’t speak to the survey itself, but having worked for a toxic boss, I can say that you could have doubled my salary, and I would still opt for a new boss.  I think so much of this option ( money or boss) has to do with a) how much you make already and b) just how bad your boss may be.  Maybe that’s what’s really missing from the survey. Everything’s relative.

  5. Let’s think about this one more way – let’s assume reality – 10% of bosses are crap, 10% of bosses are wonderful and 80% of bosses are just bosses – average.  We tend to want to go to one end or the other – we do this in HR – A LOT – instead of stay with the majority.  So, in my post above most people get really passionate around the 10% really crappy bosses and say “No Way! You couldn’t pay me enough” – I get that.  I try and stay with the masses – most people have decent bosses and getting a better boss really has little if any impact on them – truly, this is the case with most people. A majority, of this majority, will take the cash.

    My point is that as soon as we assume every employee “just wants to be led by a great boss” we will miss the reality of many of our employees motivations at work.

    1. I think you are projecting your own motivators too far. As noted by some other commenters, the respondent’s circumstances matter. But in addition, we are not all equally driven by a purely utilitarian mindset. To cite one example, those with a high desire for balance and harmony (which in the parlance of the instruments I use is called the “aesthetic” values posture) would indeed go with the better boss.
      On another note, it may simply be that so many of my clients over the years have been government agencies, but I think your suggestion that only 10% of bosses are bad is awfully generous.

  6. I must be very strange, because I’d want the better boss. A better boss increases productivity, which increases the bottom line. This in turn then leads to higher salaries.

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