I was just going to say, when I was interrupted, that one of the many ways of classifying minds is under the heads of arithmetical and algebraical intellects. All economical and practical wisdom is an extension or variation of the following arithmetical formula: 2 + 2 = 4. Every philosophical proposition has the more general character of the expression a + b = c. We are mere operatives, empirics, and egotists, until we learn to think in letters instead of figures.
– Oliver Wendall Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table
The first person to use the word “incentive,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, was Plutarch, in 1603. The term comes from the Latin incendere, meaning to kindle, or set fire. It can be used as an adjective (as in, say, an “incentive” spirit – one that makes you feel, well, “fiery” on the inside), or as a noun (as in, say, fear of failure providing an effective “incentive” to insure first years don’t spend their days playing golf). Other offshoots include “incention,” “incensive,” and “incendiary.”
The Italians still call their ashtrays portocenderes-literally, “ash carriers.”
Since the seventeenth century this one little word has had the typical luck of moving from dull to illustrious, and back again. Co-opted first by poets and their lovers and later by lawyers and their accountants, its latest linguistic arc is traditionally tragic: it has fallen lazily into renown and (therefore) misuse.
Currently an inaccurate catchall for management consultants and their younger, wetter-eared MBA counterparts, the late great “incentive” has given birth to a two-headed beast of bad patterns: “incent” and “incentivize.”
The notion of “fire setting” (a fine one) begat the less dramatic (if imminently more useful) concepts of “inspiration” and “motivation.” Not far from these lay the kinds of heroic LEAD-led thrusts to, say, bring energy and excitement into the ranks of an organization (revolutions having fallen down the line in terms of return on investment).
In the Internet age, “incentive” was just another word for “options” (a linguistic swap that’s lots of fun for former English majors). Now, however, we embark on a gentler era of increasingly subtle thoughts on how best (and lawfully) to make corporate missions cohere.
The idea is that “setting a fire” in an individual will have an elegant trickle-up effect – several thousand small fires can infect a global mentality, and so a brand. Strike your match right, and you’ve got Wal-Mart. Strike it wrong, Enron.
And yet for such a cool word, filled with such infinite poetic possibility, we show little or no respect. Because, you see, the Oxford English Dictionary gives no space up for a verb form of incentive; there is no “incent” or “incentivize” anywhere in what remains the Bible of Use, where it would be tucked in before “incept” or after “incensurable.” I promise; check me on this.
The more correct, if slightly awkward way to take the meaning of the term and make it actionable would be to use a word like “incite” (as in, “How might we ‘incite’ our senior managers to be less inclined towards dubious tax evasion strategies?”). At least we’re co-opting the same root (remember roots?). But okay, roots are dull – or worse, pretentious. And the last thing we want our leaders to be is pretentious.
The first thing we do want our leaders to be is clear. Of course words and phrases – from “dope” to “props” – often enter the vernacular, and become mundane. I accept this; I embrace this. Over time, all efforts to self-correct seem at best suspect and at worst silly. And you can now find in certain (lesser?) guides to grammar a passive nod to these terms and their use.
But hey, it’s just not right. Because grammar has a place in artful communication (doesn’t it?), and artful communication has a place in leadership (doesn’t it?), and leadership still stands at the center of the Harvard philosophy (no argument here, I think), and . . . and so it should not be forgotten, even in business school, that speaking well is not a skill to be scoffed at, and speaking well begins with words.
So in the fine tradition of creating an “incentive” for my small war on this problem, here’s a modest proposal: The first ten RCs who are willing, when one of their classmates uses either “incent” or “incentivize,” to raise their hand and say, simply, “Um, excuse me but ‘incent’ and ‘incentivize’ are not words,” I offer a classically undiluted prize: a bottle of wine. If you can bring me proof that you in fact were brave enough to stand up for English, stand up for grammar, stand up for the Word, I am more than happy to show due thanks.
In this small way we may (maybe?) take a stand not only against the misuse of a term, but the misuse of an idea. Let’s set fire to lazy patterns, and with that perhaps also to the perception of business as being more about spreadsheets and less about language. Don’t think Case; think Churchill. Or think both. It’s “win-win.”
Lea Carpenter (OK) wrote to settle the score on this long-standing debate in her not-so-spare time over the summer. She has extensive experience in the publishing industry and was a speechwriter for
NewsCorp prior to attending HBS. She has interviewed Jack Welch and is the founder of an international publishing company, a literary programming company, and a quarterly literary magazine. Please send responses for publication to Harbus-Editor@mba2003.hbs.edu by Wednesday evening.