How the “cobra effect” describes pitfalls in motivating & achieving desired outcomes

By Jesse Williams & Randy Larcher  |  Originally Posted on Calibre Press, Aug 8, 2018

In the 1800s cobras were rampant throughout Delhi, India. Cobras are of course deadly, and it would be hazardous to bump into one of these large snakes on a stroll through the city. Thus, the government put a bounty on the snakes and paid citizens for cobra carcasses. This incentive induced some smart citizens to create cobra farms and raise the snakes, so they could kill them and turn them in for the bounty. The government found out about this scheme and eliminated the reward. These formerly savvy entrepreneurs, now with no need for the snakes, released them. As a result, there were more snakes than before.

This phenomenon, as shared in the book, Primed to Perform by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor, has been dubbed “The Cobra Effect.” Contrary to the government’s goals, the number of cobras increased. Why? Turns out, as the authors explain, “The city government failed to realize…they did not want more dead cobras—they wanted fewer live ones.” By focusing on the wrong metrics, the government got the exact opposite result their incentive program hoped to achieve.

The cobra effect can also slither into law enforcement agencies. For example, if officers are required to write a certain number of citations a day (let’s say the number is 10), some officers might make two traffic stops and issue five citations per stop. Also, if citations are tallied at the end of the month, some officers might wait until the last five days of the month to write the required number of tickets. Most would agree that these practices do little to further an agency’s mission or improve community relations.

That’s because the focus is on the wrong metric. Therefore, “quota” systems set up in this manner miss the mark, and citizens become skeptical of officer motives. Police agencies are generally looking for more productive officers because they will contribute favorably to an agency’s mission. Thus, their metrics should measure the elements of a productive officer. Counting tickets does not necessarily make an officer productive.

Stacking citations is just one example of the effects of poorly developed performance standards. Another would be stat sharing. This happens when one rock star officer shares arrests (or other measurable activity) with co-workers. Ideally, supervisors would prefer officers to participate in activities to create safer communities.

When setting standards, an agency must consider its mission and any unintended consequences that could result from implementing the standards. It is vital to set clear, achievable standards with the end goal in mind. Following are some guidelines to align an agency’s mission with the standards it sets for the day-to-day activities of officers.

Determine Standards: Some departments have adopted a method designed to measure performance based on a standard that equals the average of all officer activity. A system like this allows agencies to assign values for those activities deemed most important to its mission. It also allows agencies to compare officers against their peers, rather than an arbitrary number.

Be Realistic & Flexible: Standards should not be so rigid that officers can’t meet them. Occasionally there are extenuating circumstances that prevent an officer from meeting the standard. When evaluating activity, agencies must take all factors into consideration such as call volume, training, special assignments, and days worked. Flexibility provides the latitude to measure activity reasonably. Measuring performance in this manner is fair to both the officer and the public.

Be Specific: Any time a performance standard is set, officers must know exactly what is expected. In The Speed of Trust, author Stephen M.R. Covey writes, “Expectations [are] based on the principles of clarity, responsibility, and accountability. The opposite…is to leave expectations undefined…This causes people to guess, wonder, or assume what expectations might be.” Vague standards make it impossible to hold officers accountable.

Assure Accountability:Although it’s important to be flexible, we all need to be accountable for our work product. Supervisors, subordinates, and peers can formulate accountability plans depending on the needs of the officers and the agency. This might include training and coaching or mentoring. Ultimately, if we fail to perform we should welcome and expect disciplinary measures.

Regularly Check Status:Ongoing status checks are vital to stay on course. No matter the timeframe, agencies must regularly analyze activity and results to see if the agency’s mission is being realized. Typically, this analysis is conducted monthly. However, checking activity on a quarterly and/or bi-annual basis is useful in identifying trends.


Performance standards are a necessary way to track officer productivity. This activity then must be compared against the desired outcomes. Without standards, we are left to wonder how what we do each day contributes to our agency’s goals. There is no one-size-fits-all method for staying productive and engaged, but consideration of the key ideas above can help us formulate a plan that fits our unique situation. Always beware of the cobra effect! Make sure that standards are developed and enforced in a way that contributes to the agency’s overall mission.