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Paying People to Lie: The Truth About the Budgeting Process

Michael C. Jensen

Social Science Electronic Publishing (SSEP), Inc.; Harvard Business School; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

Revised September, 2001

Harvard NOM Research Paper No. 01-03, and HBS Working Paper No. 01-072

This paper analyzes the counterproductive effects associated with using budgets or targets in an organization's performance measurement and compensation systems. Paying people on the basis of how their performance relates to a budget or target causes people to game the system and in doing so to destroy value in two main ways: 1. both superiors and subordinates lie in the formulation of budgets and therefore gut the budgeting process of the critical unbiased information that is required to coordinate the activities of disparate parts of an organization, and 2. they game the realization of the budgets or targets and in doing so destroy value for their organizations. Although most managers and analysts understand that budget gaming is widespread, few understand the huge costs it imposes on organizations and how to lower them.

My purpose in this paper is to explain exactly how this happens and how managers and firms can stop this counterproductive cycle. The key lies not in destroying the budgeting systems, but in changing the way organizations pay people. In particular to stop this highly counterproductive behavior we must stop using budgets or targets in the compensation formulas and promotion systems for employees and managers. This means taking all kinks, discontinuities and non-linearities out of the pay-for-performance profile of each employee and manager. Such purely linear compensation formulas provide no incentives to lie, or to withhold and distort information, or to game the system.

While the evidence on the costs of these systems is not extensive, I believe that solving the problems could easily result in large productivity and value increases - sometimes as much as 50 to 100% improvements in productivity. I believe the less intensive reliance on such budget/target systems is an important cause of the increased productivity of entrepreneurial and LBO firms. Moreover, eliminating budget/target-induced gaming from the management system will eliminate one of the major forces leading to the general loss of integrity in organizations. People are taught to lie in these pervasive budgeting systems because if they tell the truth they often get punished and if they lie they get rewarded. Once taught to lie in this system people generally cannot help but extend that behavior to all sorts of other relationships in the organization.


An executive summary of this paper entitled "Corporate Budgeting Is Broken, Let's Fix It", Harvard Business Review, pp. 94-101, November 2001, can be downloaded at no charge from Social Science Research Network Electronic Library at:

Number of Pages in PDF File: 28

Keywords: Budgeting, Budgets, Compensation, Performance Measurement, Gaming, Lying, Loss of Integrity, Truthfulness, Sandbagging, Motivation, Productivity, Incentives, Control Systems, Accounting Irregularities, Fraud, Goldbricking, Channel Stuffing, Cooking the Books, Managing Earnings, Managing the Numbers

JEL Classification: L22, L23, M10, M40, M46

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Date posted: April 30, 2001  

Suggested Citation

Jensen, Michael C., Paying People to Lie: The Truth About the Budgeting Process (Revised September, 2001). Harvard NOM Research Paper No. 01-03, and HBS Working Paper No. 01-072. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=267651 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.267651

Contact Information

Michael C. Jensen (Contact Author)
Social Science Electronic Publishing (SSEP), Inc. ( email )
7858 Sanderling Road
Sarasota, FL 34242
United States
617-510-3363 (Phone)
305 675-3166 (Fax)
HOME PAGE: http://ssrn.com/author=9

Harvard Business School ( email )
Soldiers Field
Negotiations, Organizations & Markets
Boston, MA 02163
United States
617-510-3363 (Phone)
305-675-3166 (Fax)
HOME PAGE: http://drfd.hbs.edu/fit/public/facultyInfo.do?facInfo=ovr&facId=6484

National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ( email )
1050 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI) ( email )
B-1050 Brussels
Feedback to SSRN

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