The Theory of Mind in Agency Theory
| Nicolai Foss |
Agency theory is a highly important foundational theory in management research. It has been of great assistance with respect to conceptualizing and framing key problems in the design and management of reward systems, and it yields sharp and clear predictions. However, it does not provide a realistic treatment of a key psychological aspects of interpersonal relations. Specifically, agency theory does not adequately account for the principal’s ability to develop, hold and adjust a “theory of the agent’s mind”. The theory in fact contains a very lopsided account of the principal’s ability to read the agent’s desires, intentions, knowledge, and beliefs. Thus, in many models in agency theory, the principal’s knowledge of much of what is “inside the head” of the agent (e.g., the agent’s taste for risk, opportunity costs, and disutility of work) is assumed to be perfect, while he is assumed to be entirely ignorant of other aspects of what the agent intends, knows and believes. Such “asymmetrical” assumptions allow for analytical tractability and clean predictions regarding how incentives and monitoring influences the behavior of agents, such as employees, managers, and suppliers. However, extreme and asymmetrical assumptions can also lead more applied research astray and lead to misapplications of theory in managerial practice. Thus, the assumption that a principal is capable of perfectly grasping, for example, an agent’s motivations seems highly, and increasingly, tenuous: High personnel turnover and the increasing use of fleeting project organization in many industries, as well as the increasing prevalence of cross-national and cross-cultural management teams and networks, make an assumption of a perfect ToM unrealistic.
In a new paper, “Putting a Realistic Theory of Mind Into Agency Theory: Implications for Reward Design and Management in Principal Agent Relations,” my CBS colleague Diego Stea and I take some initial and highly exploratory steps towards working with a more realistic theory of mind in the context of agency relationships within firms (in an as yet unpublished modelling paper, we work these ideas into an adverse selection model). We argue that novel insights into the design and management of rewards follow from explicitly incorporating a realistic theory of mind into agency theory. Thus, a principal with a good theory of mind can better learn the type of the agent, read the signals related to the agent’s effort, signal to the agent, and adjust rewards to the agent. A ToM creates value because it results in lower-variance estimates of the agent’s effort and type, and eases the matching of agents with contracts.