The W. Edwards Deming Institute Blog

Eliminate Sales Commissions: Reject Theory X Management and Embrace Systems Thinking


Dr. Deming explained that paying sales commissions to staff introduced distortions into the organization that damaged overall performance. Each topic has different connections to Deming’s system of profound knowledge, as he laid it out in the New Economics. The problems with sales commissions heavily touch on all of the four areas of the management system.

  1. systems thinking – the distortions created by sales commissions are very damaging to the organization. The focus on sales (which an understanding of psychology tells us bonuses will create), versus the customer, lead to an organization that is not customer focused. Instead of finding solutions that are best for the customer, and cautioning the customer away from bad decision, bonuses focus salespeople on their targets not customer service. Most every organization with sales bonuses know about the strain put on teamwork due to individual performance bonuses. Instead of managers having the flexibility to assign resources as needed, the bonus structure often gets in the way of optimal performance. And on and on.
  2. understanding variation – even if you didn’t believe issues are raised with an understanding other 3 areas, an understanding of variation would require bonus systems that reward statistically valid differences in performance. Unfortunately, sales bonus system just ignoring this and end up closer to a lottery than a bonus based on statistically valid evaluation of performance.
  3. understanding psychology – there are many problems with a bonus reward sales system when you look at it from an understand of psychology perspective. You are equating the value of employees with 1 metric. You devalue teamwork or helping others. You discourage teamwork as they have been told their value is based on their sales. You tell the rest of the organization that they are not important for sales or worthy of being rewarded for good sales. You are treating employees as a theory x manager (carrot and stick) would instead of understanding what John McGreggor spelled out over 50 years ago in the Human Side of Enterprise (that your job as a manager is to help people do a good job by improving the system to let them do so – not using extrinsic motivation to avoid managing)…
  4. theory of knowledge – is often the most difficult to understand area and the one people have applying to the workplace. But as we often find, when thinking about an issue with an understanding of the 4 areas of profound knowledge you see how interrelated the ideas are. Why do we think sales bonuses are needed and useful? Often we have no understanding of variation so we attribute variation to our beliefs (an issue for how we “know” what we “know” and psychology). The principle of confirmation bias (we ignore evidence that contradicts our beliefs and value data that supports our beliefs – this along with with a failure to understand variation is dangerous). The theory of knowledge also helps us appreciate that long ago, well documented, management theory is ignored. So our failure to apply theory y management (workers want to do a good job and managers need to help them do so, not give them carrots and sticks to get them to perform), for over 50 years is consistent with a failure to appreciate learn and adopt ideas.

Fog Creek software, founded by Joel Spolsky, uses management concepts Dr. Deming encouraged organizations to use. In Why do we pay sales commissions?, Dan Ostlund, looks at why Fog Creek Software got rid of sales commissions.

There are all kinds of problems with commissions, for example, high turnover as salespeople shop jobs to get a slightly more lucrative commission system. Always attempting to maximize personal benefit which results in system gaming like making fake phone calls to hit call numbers, sandbagging deals into the next quarter, sniping new leads, and so on (the list here is actually endless).

All of this is organizational dysfunction, and it’s a recipe for resentment and distrust among your team.

Management then tries to correct for these problems.

According to this view sales people are only motivated by a specific type of pay—the commission, and the magic is in finding, like Goldilocks, that place that’s just so perfectly just right. Because of this we regard all the pathologies commissions create as just part of the price.

But could it be possible that we’ve got cause and effect reversed here? Is it possible that the stereotype of the slimy salesperson, and the derangement of the culture they so often get blamed for, are actually the result of the way they are paid instead of the kind of people they are? Could commissions, rather than the people, be the primary cause of dysfunctional sales cultures?

So we got rid of commissions.

We did it because we were having a lot of the problems with commissions described above even though all of our salespeople are ethical and decent. Commissions just encourage certain kinds of behavior; dysfunction is built into the logic of the system.

For us, it’s been a great success, and at least from that perspective it might be time we punch the Theory X, commissions-based sales culture right in the nose. Real redemption might lie in removing the source of the derangement and treating sales people like we treat programmers and other workers that we implicitly trust.

Many companies make this move. They are often nervous because, even with all the problems, most everyone else seems to do it this way, how can we change? Well that is what Dr. Deming was constantly pushing the need to transform. Often the hardest part is not in the doing it, but in breaking with the past and being willing to try. Once you decide to look at the value and damage sales commission, or performance appraisals, the most difficult part is often just deciding to take the steps to change. The change itself is often not as difficult as people imagine.

Related: Free, Perfect and Now by Robert RodinThe Trouble with Incentives: They Work by Gipsie Ranney

Categorised as: psychology, respect for people, systems thinking, theory of knowledge, understanding variation


  1. […] Eliminate Sales Commissions: Reject Theory X Management and Embrace Systems Thinking – Dr. W. Edwards Deming on Innovation – Russel Ackoff: Corporations Are Not Led By […]

  2. […] This is another instance of a technology company providing a well reasoned explanation for why they are better off without sales commissions. Martin mentioned an article by Joel Spolsky on why Fog Creek software decided to eliminate sales commissions. We referenced that article last year, in: Eliminate Sales Commissions: Reject Theory X Management and Embrace Systems Thinking. […]

  3. Cliff Norman says:

    Thanks John, this saved me some work today. I was able to forward the link to some folks who are considering starting this sort of mess. Cliff

  4. Jake Eagleshield says:

    I do not trust commission only sales people First,It makes the salesperson desperate(the idea that if you don’t sell you don’t eat)normally honest people will lie and cheat and distort the facts just to make a sale.Most salespeople(like car sales for example) have a whole different idea of what is ethical and what is not. Lying is a way of life for them.Second,this is the twenty first century. People need more security than “sell or go hungry”. Third,no good salesperson worth their salt,should need an incentive to to their job,if they are paid a decent wage. Finally,I don’t care what you’re selling,if it is cars,furniture,shoes,insurance,or you are a telemarketer. When you are in training,you are taught to talk,but not to listen,and that is what angers consumers the most.

  5. “Extrinsic” motivation (to get a reward or avoid a punishment) is much less effective than “intrinsic” (a commitment to doing something for its own sake)…

  6. […] Related: Break Down Barriers Between Departments – Silos to Systems: Presentation by Lisa Snyder – Dr. Russell Ackoff Webcast on Systems Thinking – 94% Belongs to the System – Distorting the System, Distorting the Data or Improving the System – Leadership and the New Science – Root Cause, Interactions, Robustness and Design of Experiments – Eliminate Sales Commissions: Reject Theory X Management and Embrace Systems Thinking […]

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