Dear Economist

I cannot help being fair when giving presents or rewards, even though I may actually want to give differently or the recipients may in fact deserve differently. I only differentiate between groups (my children, my nephews and nieces, my friends etc), but not within each group. Not wanting to show favouritism or cause rivalry, I give a present of equal value to every member of a group.

Were businesses to follow my example such “incentives” would no longer serve as a motivating tool. But then, this could also mean no ill feelings or disharmony, right?

Aidida Rosenstock, Germany

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Dear Aidida,

I am not sure why you think there would be so much harmony in a workplace where lazy, incompetent and rude workers are paid the same as the industrious, capable and affable. Still, you have a point. Research on competitive pay schemes shows that workers are, indeed, motivated by them - taking fewer days off, for example. But they also encourage staff to stab colleagues in the back by refusing to share equipment. Employers must judge whether the motivation for self-improvement outweighs the damage caused by poor team work.

I am more interested in why you adopt such odd principles yourself. Are you truly indifferent to whether your children become beach bums or bankers? The right incentives could work wonders.

Even if all that matters to you is fairness, you should pay attention not to how much you yourself give, but to how much each child - or friend - has after the gift has been given. The millionaire and the pauper receive the same from you, which means you are defining “fair” from an egocentric standpoint. No doubt this minimises your own effort and embarrassment. How selfish.

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