Profit-maximizing firm owners who incentivize their managers with a bonus for process improvement create an intentional misalignment of their own objective and management attention. From the viewpoint of a single firm, such a local misalignment can never be profitable, but in this study we take a wider strategic perspective by investigating cost-reducing process improvements of two firms competing in a Cournot market. We find that the use of a process improvement bonus (by firm A) can be profitable, by affecting the competitor's decision making. Informed about the reward structure at firm A, which provides an incentive for process improvement and thereby for increased production at that firm, the manager of the competing firm (B) is inclined to produce less if the owner of firm B only rewards profit. This leads to a higher profit for firm A. However, we also show that firm B's best strategy is to also offer a process improvement bonus, even if that firm is a cost laggard (with higher costs for process improvement), and that this leads to reduced profit for both firms in many situations unless one of them is sufficiently superior in its ability to improve processes. These results are robust for uncertain process improvement outcomes, multidimensional process improvement decisions, and information asymmetry in the owner–manager relationship.