Carrot and Stick: An Epic Fail in the 21st Century?



“So, if we repair this mismatch between what science knows and what business does, if we bring our notions of motivation into the 21st century, if we get past this lazy, dangerous, ideology of carrots and sticks, we can strengthen our businesses. ~ Dan Pink

Today’s Challenge

Here’s the challenge. How do you maintain your own motivation and that of the people who work with you? Our experience tells us a balanced programme of incentives and targets is the way to go. Paradoxically, pretty much every independent laboratory and work-place study shows the opposite is true.

So what is the right approach?

Well as always it really depends.

“Offer someone the opportunity to rebuild a company or reinvent an industry as the primary incentive, and it will attract those drawn to the challenge first and the money second.” ~ Simon Sinek

Dan Pink, a thought leader on motivation in business, proposes in his TED talk that carrots and sticks are only useful for simple linear tasks requiring little creativity or flexibility in approach; what he refers to as 20th Century challenges.

Just The Facts…

This strategy backfires when more challenging, fast moving, multifaceted problems with no clear solutions are encountered. Here research shows that incentives actually reduce performance and achievement!

Seems crazy but an overwhelming body of objective evidence shows this is the case.

So, why ignore facts?

As a good example of this research, Uri Gneezy and his colleagues Stephan Meier, and Pedro Rey-Biel describe very well the unplanned consequences which can arise from introducing incentives for education, public good, or behaviour and also when they are withdrawn.

Intriguingly, it seems that crowds also behave counter intuitively in response to incentives. In their fascinating on-line experiment using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (AMT), Winter Mason and Duncan J Watts showed that financial incentives increased the quantity but decreased the quality of work performed by participants.

If we then look at what it takes to create intrinsic motivation to change whole systems Michael Fullen takes a pretty good shot at it.

21st Century Challenges

How then should we approach complex uncertain 21st Century challenges? The answer is to go to the solutions that we know in our hearts are the answer.

If you are leading a team or an organisation, first take a minute to investigate what motivates you:

  • The money is nice but again the evidence shows that this is not even close to the top motivating factor in work
  • Do you enjoy being trusted to make decisions (autonomy)?
  • Do you enjoy the feeling of command of your business subject (mastery) and do you enjoy it when you understand why you are doing this thing (purpose)?

“Learn from the past, set vivid, detailed goals for the future, and live in the only moment of time over which you have any control: now.” ~ Denis Waitley

Reaching our Goals

How then do targets get met you may ask? The answer is that if all of us have autonomy and mastery which we apply to a common purpose it is more likely that targets become mere guides rather than endpoints.

More often than not they are over shot by actual achievement.

It also means that the workforce is equipped to adapt to rapid and sometimes extreme change rather than have a myopic fixed target. The last advantage of dumping carrots and sticks is it’s just more enjoyable to turn up to work. A happy workforce focused on meaningful goals is more likely to be a productive workforce.

And that includes you!

All Things Considered

Consider this:

  • Notice which things and events left you feeling positive and motivated – were they carrots or sticks, simple or complex, and most of all how did this affect your motivation?
  • Look for any moments where you exercised your autonomy and/or mastery – how did it make you feel?
  • Notice the effect on you if things you did today felt as if they had no purpose?
  • Chose one thing to do that shows your autonomy, mastery, and purpose and sense how you feel.
  • Reflect on whether those you work with might have similar experiences.

Recommended Reading:

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – Daniel H Pink


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Dr. Gary R Coulton is CEO of Adaptive Intelligence Consulting Limited
He empowers leaders to release their Adaptive Intelligence
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  1. ramakrishnan6002 on April 30, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Reblogged this on Gr8fullsoul.

  2. Jack R. Davis on May 1, 2014 at 1:08 am

    Reblogged this on Pinnacle Leadership Coaching and commented:
    Leadership and motivation… are we doing it right?