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Why the carrot and stick method doesn’t work

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The Carrot and Stick Method and how to motivate people

Working in Human Resources for more than 10 years, there has always been one very important question: how do you motivate people, increase performance and create employee engagement?

Scientists know that there are two main drivers behind our behaviour: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is our deep-rooted desires and they have the highest motivational power such as survival, acceptance and social power. The second driver, which is extrinsic, comes from the outside – rewards and punishments that the environment delivers for behaving in certain ways. A lot of reward and incentive programs in the workplace focus mainly on this extrinsic model.

The carrot and stick method

To improve performance and productivity and encourage excellence, we tend to reward good behaviour and punish the bad. This is the carrot and stick method… it works with donkeys, too.

I had way too many discussions with managers who unfortunately saw this as the only or most important solution. For example, if they had a high performing team member who was no longer engaged and a high flight risk, they would look to raise that person’s salary in order to solve the problem. Or if someone handed in their resignation but the employer really didn’t want to lose them and/or needed them for just one more project, they would come up with the creative solution called “retention bonus”, throwing extra money at their employee to persuade them to stay just a little longer. Problem solved, happy days. Engagement must go up, right? The interesting thing is that this does not work.

Impact of the carrot and stick approach

In fact there have been multiple behavioural science experiments that demonstrate that this method can narrow our thinking and cause the exact opposite. It can decrease motivation and actually cause harm.

I often witnessed this with performance goals that were tied to a particular bonus at the end of the year. However when circumstances changed, the goals weren’t adjusted. So the employee was faced with the dilemma of choosing whether to work towards a goal that was no longer in-line with team objectives in order to receive their bonus, or to think more about what was needed for the company and risk their bonus. Obviously, people started to no longer look at what needed to be done left or right of their own work and did not care about what mattered aside from achieving their own goals. It became more important to achieve their goal and therewith the reward, and that in turn excluded finding a new or different solution to an issue the company was facing.

How carrots transform our motivation

A key motivational principle is: “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and play of whatever a body is not obliged to do”. Rewards can transform an interesting task into a duty, it can turn play into work and this can diminish intrinsic motivation and with that decrease performance and creativity.

Psychologists David Greene and Mark Lepper have conducted several studies, one which became a classic in the field of behavioural science: Together with a third colleague they watched a classroom of pre-schoolers for several days and identified the children who chose to spend their “free play” time drawing. Then they started an experiment to test the effect of rewarding an activity these children clearly enjoyed. They divided the children into three groups: the 1st group was shown a reward they could earn, a “Good Player” certificate – decorated nicely and with the children’s name on it. The 2nd group was not shown any expected reward, they simply asked the children if they wanted to draw and when the session ended, they handed each child a “Good Player” certificate. The 3rd group didn’t get anything, neither the promise of an award, nor a surprise award after they finished drawing.

Two weeks later the researchers returned to the classroom and teachers handed out paper and markers during the free play period. What happened was that the children who were previously in the 2nd or 3rd groups, those groups who didn’t receive a reward or an unexpected award for drawing, drew just a much and with the same enjoyment as before the experiment. But the children who had expected and later received an award a few weeks before, showed much less interest and spent less time drawing. The rewards for “if you do this, I will give you that” had turned play into work. Why? Those types of rewards require people to give up some of their autonomy which can have a negative effect on motivation and take the enjoyment out of an activity.

Frederick Winslow Taylor once said “Work consists mainly of simple, not particularly interesting, tasks. The only way to get people to do them is to incentivize them properly and monitor them carefully”. This was probably a very true statement in the last century but in today’s world, jobs have changed. Yes, there will remain routine, non-challenging jobs which are directed by others. But a very large number of jobs became far more complex, more interesting and more self-directed. The solutions people have to come up with are far more creative and maybe something that does not yet exist.

How to increase motivation without carrots

If we want people to perform well, we should no longer build all motivation around the carrot and stick method. It requires a completely new approach.

Scientists who have been studying motivation over decades have described this ‘new’ approach as the desire to do things because they matter; something people like because it’s interesting and part of something important. In order to increase productivity, engagement and motivation, the approach should focus on autonomy, mastery and purpose. Autonomy, meaning the ability to direct our own life; mastery being the desire to become better and better at something that matters; and finally purpose, the urge to do something for a greater good.

Obviously, this doesn’t mean money does not play a role. As a basis for all of this, people need to be ensured they are paid fair and that they earn enough to live and have a few perks. But then, over and above this, create an environment that allows people to be creative, come up with their own ideas and let them do things their way. Give people autonomy to direct their own work, and decide when to start and end their work. If you want engagement, self-direction works way better than being closely managed or being told how to do something instead of figuring it out yourself. Allow people to generate their own great ideas and allow them to make mistakes in order to grow and master their own work.

If you agree or disagree, I recommend reading more about this and get inspired by Daniel Pinks book “Drive – the surprising truth about what motivates us”. It is a brilliant book and will give you some great thoughts on motivation and employee engagement. It did for me.