If you are unfortunate enough to participate in a management team meeting, you will probably at some point hear the word ‘incentivise’. Whether the management team is running a business, school, charity or small country it is faced with the question of how to shape human behaviour towards a particular goal.

How do you encourage children to read more books? How do you get students to pay their fees on time? How do you increase council tax payments? How do you entice employees to remain loyal? The culturally dominant answer to these questions is incentives – aligning future rewards to current choices.

Politicians love the word. Economists gush as proud parents as they observe the word’s expansion into all parts of society. On the ground, the reaction is often less positive. Next time you speak to someone in healthcare, ask what their emotional reaction is to the phrase, ‘payment by results’.

Throughout the 1990s the word ‘incentivise’ appeared 449 times in major newspapers. In just two years, 2010-11, it appeared 5,885 times. Our culture is engaged in a momentous carrot-dangling social experiment.

The workplace is one area where incentives rule. Careers, rather like property, have ladders. We are encouraged to keep climbing, enticed by rewards of money, status, power and, well, money. This, so our employers hope, keeps us working hard and willing to make the temporary sacrifices (any semblance of life outside of work) needed for the current good of the company/school/charity/hospital.

How does a follower of Christ navigate an incentive-driven workplace? Money, recognition and authority can all play a positive role in the life and mission of a Christian. However, they can easily turn into the idols of wealth, status, and power if they are pursued as an end in themselves. We do not need Marx, Freud and Nietzsche to warn us of their misuse. The life and death of Jesus of Nazareth dethroned these idols and put them in their place. However, living that out – dethroning the idols in our own lives – is the hard part. All workplaces have cultures, and all cultures shape us to some extent. Paying the right amount of attention to money, recognition and authority is an ongoing challenge.

While there is much that could be said of the place of spirituality in the workplace, or of the role of the Church and a theology of work as it relates to this issue, I would like to draw attention to the creativity made possible by refusing the ultimacy of the world’s rewards.

Perhaps the best bit of advice I have ever received is from the artist-musician Nathan Johnson. What he originally diagnosed as a problem – can you be successful without being a platinum-selling artist? – became, after reflection, a possibility. He surmised his learning: ‘If you don’t seek the world’s rewards, you don’t have to play by their rules.’

It is possible that God will call you to climb a career ladder – to end up running an NHS Trust, for example. But God might also call you to jump off the ladder, gather a few friends and re-imagine what caring for someone’s health looks like in God’s economy. If you are not bound by the pursuit of the rewards related to your vocation, then you are free to re-imagine the landscape of your vocation, which is: “where your greatest passion meets the world’s greatest needs” (Frederick Buechener).

On Monday, 10 March we will be exploring these issues and others in an event hosted by threads and LICC – ‘What are we working for?’ We’d love you to come along and join the discussion. You can read more about the evening and get your ticket here. And if you’re not in London but would like to tune in, you can join us via livestream here.

Written by Mark Sampson

Mark is pursuing a part-time doctorate in theological ethics and economics. He is involved in a social enterprise that helps organisations measure social impact and also works freelance in management consultancy. Mark is married to Katie and has three young children: Ember, Lucas and Elora. They live in Earlsfield, London.

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