What's Wrong with the Carrot and Stick Approach? - Fresh Concepts Skip to main content

What’s Wrong with the Carrot and Stick Approach?

In a nutshell, there is plenty that’s wrong about the carrot and stick approach. Yet, managers have not been given the tools or witnessed a better way to harness workers’ interests. So, this dated approach lives on and on and on. The carrot and stick approach has long referred to how we motivate people at work (since about 1948), with the assumption being that people are like donkeys who love carrots and hate getting smacked on their behind by a stick (but if smacked by their rider, will move faster). Are people and donkeys the same? Do rewards and punishments work at work?

  • Research shows REWARDS work best to harness ACTION  

In the September 27, 2017 Harvard Business Review, Tali Sharot, an associate professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University College London, shares how the reward of praise was more effective to increase hospital employees’ hand sanitizing efforts than the threat of disease (and obvious punishment). In fact, cameras monitoring employees washing or not washing their hands showed an increase from 10% compliance when warning signs about disease were used to motivate employees’ actions versus almost 90% compliance when an electronic board displayed a positive message (“Good job!”) to reward hand washing. Bottom line: immediate positive feedback is very effective when it comes to changing actions. Sharot explains that our brains have evolved over time to be wired such that we think “if reward, then action needed.”

  • Research shows PUNISHMENTS work best to harness INACTION  

On the flip side, our brains have also evolved to avoid negative consequences (such as drowning, poison, or dangerous areas) by inaction or staying where we are. Most people have experienced the phenomena of freezing in place in a potentially dangerous situation. Sharot believes that “when we anticipate something bad, our brain triggers a ‘no go’ signal.” For this reason, punishments (like getting fired or being legally prosecuted) may be most effective to discourage people from acting in certain ways (like stealing from the company or sharing trade secrets).

  • How to use this information 

Unfortunately, the actions that this research advises are frequently unclear to managers. So, let’s be totally clear. If these results are read and carried out, managers need to 1) immediately reward the actions they want to see at work and 2) quickly punish the actions they want to extinguish.

This might be the end of the story, but sadly it’s not. If we personalize this research and consider how and why we procrastinate, what motivates us, and what we fear most at work . . . we get a better sense of the bigger picture and the full story.

How often has the fear of punishment (public embarrassment or demotion) been the stick that has “motivated” us to work on a project or presentation? Given Sharot’s research, it’s not surprising that we have delayed working on our project or presentation! Our brain has been telling us “DON’T ACT; STAY WHERE YOU ARE!”

The first-place, big “ah-ha” is this: to combat this frozen stance that biologically impacts employees when petrified of potential failure, skilled managers need to motivate team members with the promise of praise and immediate feedback as well as a helping hand to initiate action and activity.

The second-place, runner-up “ah-ha” from Sharot’s article is this: that praise works at work. There is no BETTER, CHEAPER, or MORE EFFECTIVE motivational tool. Effective managers know what good praise looks like (authentic, specific, meaningful) and when (often) to dole it out.

Get going.

To read the full article in HBR go to: https://hbr.org/2017/09/what-motivates-employees-more-rewards-or-punishments. To read more from Sarah Robinson, see Unstuck at Last: Using Your Strengths to Get What You Want and FRESH Leadership: 5 Skills to Transform You and Your Team.

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