Which is better: More money, or a better boss?

A recent survey suggests most employees would opt for the latter. Not so fast. The author takes off the gloves to challenge the findings—and the way the survey was conducted.


There was a survey done recently by Michelle McQuaid and the results were picked up by a number of media outlets and delivered as big news.

The basis of the study was, if given a choice, would your employee choose a better boss or a pay raise—and guess what they found. Yes, 65 percent of employees say they would rather have a “better boss” than more money!

So, here’s my question: Do you think that is true?

What if you went to your employees right now and said to them:

“Look, we know based on this survey that you guys want a better boss, so we going to fire the idiot we have managing you right now and let you pick your next boss! And, because we are doing this, you don’t get a raise next year. But don’t worry—you’ll be more engaged and happier because this next gal you pick to tell you what to do is really going to be that much better! What do you say? Are you in?”

A laughable survey?

Before you go cutting your budget for 2013 pay increases and start funneling all of that money into leadership development, let’s look at a couple of things:

  • The person who did the survey—Michelle McQuaid—has a consulting business, and guess what she’s selling. Engagement!
  • The survey sample was a total of 1,000 folks from various demographics, and I’m sure was academically and statistically tested to be completely valid and reliable.

Unfortunately, the media outlets that pick up this stuff never give the full story. That’s not their job—their job is to get you to click—and most people believe what they read. Put into context, this survey is almost laughable. One person, trying to sell her ideas, throws a survey together that just by happenstance validates what she’s saying. The Business Insider even tied Gallup into the article making it look even more valid, and that causes great confusion!

How I would conduct this study

Here’s my real-life study of this same subject. Do this for me, and let me know how it turns out:

  1. Take $2,500 cash, in stacks of $20 bills, and set it in front of an employee. Let the employee touch the money and pick it up.
  2. Then, ask this one question: “You can have a new boss—a better boss-or right now you can have this money. Which one would you like?”
  3. Do this to 100 employees—or 1,000 (like it matters)-and tell me your results.

Here is my guarantee to you, and if it doesn’t work out this way, I’ll pay for your study: You will not have 65 percent of your employees choose a new boss. I guarantee it.

Look, I get what Michelle McQuaid is trying to do—we’ve all been drinking the engagement Kool-Aid—so now we’re supposed to believe that money no longer matters to people? Well, it does. It matters a whole lot—don’t kid yourself.

Telling yourself that your employees will pick a better boss over a raise is a fool’s errand and makes you look like an idiot to your executives, because they know reality. People want a better boss, and people need and want more money. More!

Tim Sackett is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, Mich. Contact him at sackett.tim@HRU-Tech.com. A version of this post originally appeared on the blog The Tim Sackett Project.

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