In early March, United Airlines created a firestorm by announcing that they were doing away with their performance incentive program. Under that program, employees had the potential to earn up to $375 each quarter that the airline met operational goals.

Its replacement? A lottery that would benefit just a few workers each quarter with incredibly rich rewards that included $100,000 cash, new Mercedes and luxury vacations.

The online backlash was immediate and culminated in employees signing an online petition condemning the change.

Comments included: “When no one ‘qualifies’ because they called out sick due to the most awful flu in years, or sick children, or life … the company just makes more money for itself,” “Unfair and unjust,” and “Service is going to lack, on-time departures won’t be fought for and the company will suffer.”

United made a quick about-face. United Airlines President Scott Kirby responded, “Our intention was to introduce a better, more exciting program, but we misjudged how these changes would be received by many of you. So, we are pressing the pause button on these changes to review your feedback and consider the right way to move ahead.”

I have no doubt that Kirby’s original intentions were genuine. He wanted to incentivize performance. The problem was the mechanism he chose and his team’s understanding of what motivates front-line employees.

I’m certain his team calculated the financial impact to the company, and it was probably less than or fairly close to the $87 million in incentives the company paid last year. It also is pretty likely that the management team believed the new plan would be well received by everyone, otherwise there’s no point to it.

What they most certainly did not do is understand those in the trenches. Before making big changes to positive aspects of your plan, make sure you understand your organization and what motivates people.

Just as important, make sure those in the trenches understand the realities of the business, including the financial cost of benefits and incentives. There’s no such thing as a bottomless pit of money to be shared with everyone. Your business model and ability to execute will determine the size of the pool. And the market will cruelly decide to disrupt any noble intentions you may have.

The best approach? Open up channels for two-way communication about what is wanted by your employees and what is realistic for your company. You may not like what your employees have to say, or if you’re an employee, you may not like what your employer is telling you, but at least you’ll have clarity and transparency.

Couple clarity and transparency with a culture that demonstrates their appreciation for everyone on the team, and the chances of employee satisfaction, and thus organizational success, increases dramatically.

Another important aspect of clarity and transparency is that the organization and employees need to be honest with each other when assessing performance that leads to incentive pay (or the lack of it).

Organizations notoriously inflate grades in performance reviews because they are afraid of honest conversation with their employees.

Individual performers have the same problem. If you’re truly an A player, be ready to back up your assessment with metrics.

If you’re good, not great, that’s fine. On average, people are average, so you’re in good company. Just make sure you’re realistic when comparing performance with compensation.

Oh, back to United.

Do I like their now-scrapped bonus plan? No. A lottery – even at the pretty good odds United was offering – is a tax on people who are bad at math. I’d take the cash.

Scott Cochran is the president of Spartanburg Methodist College. He has a combined 29 years’ experience in business and higher education.