Tag Archives: punishment

Motivation From the Outside In: Beware the Carrot and Stick

“Some mornings it’s just not worth chewing through the leather straps.” Emo Philips

This quote makes me laugh because I see the biting truth of it (pun intended). Too many of us get out of bed each morning and go to work knowing that when we get there, we’ll experience either crushing pressure or dull monotony, conflict with other people, a boss who treats us like a child, and a company that sees us as little more than cogs in a great wheel.

It’s in our nature to work hard, to form deep connections with people, to steer our own course, and to make a contribution. When we go against our nature, when none of these things are happening, we lack the drive to work. We are unmotivated, and with good reason!

Motivating the unmotivated

To be sure, there are times when we even the unmotivated can be induced to work. It’s done through rewards and punishment. Management holds out a carrot, offering a week’s paid vacation to the person who has the highest production numbers, for example. Employees will work hard to reach that target (if the vacation is really what they want), but once the contest is over, they will revert back to their previous level of effort. Or, management wields a stick, threatening some kind of punishment if employees don’t do their jobs. In those cases, people will do just enough to “stay under the radar” and avoid getting into trouble. While some carrots and sticks may work in crisis situations or as a stop-gap remedy, what they mostly do is promote nearsighted thinking, mistrust, cynicism, and a diminished capacity to innovate and create. Hardly a recipe for a healthy workforce.

What is motivation?
From the Latin “to move,” motivation is that which gives purpose and direction to behavior; it is the reason for taking action. People can be motivated from two sources:

Extrinsic: Factors outside the individual (money, perks, bonus points, or other rewards; also threats and punishments). Think of this as motivation from the outside in.

Intrinsic: The internal desire to perform a particular task because it gives people pleasure, develops a skill, or is morally the right thing to do. Think of this as motivation from the inside out.

Carrots: Why (some) rewards work
There is nothing inherently wrong with using extrinsic rewards to motivate, as Dan Pink explains in his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In fact, certain baseline rewards (salary, benefits, some perks) should be in place, otherwise people will focus on the unfairness of things. Beyond that, though, Pink says we should be wary of using external rewards as a motivational device. He uses this example: A company awards bonuses for those who meet their quarterly sales goal. People will work hard to drives sales for the quarter, competing with fellow co-workers to win. That strategy will work in the short term but not in the long-term success of the company, the customers, or their co-workers. If, on the other hand, the company gives bonuses based on current year’s results, profit in the next couple of years, customer satisfaction, and evaluation of co-workers, people will try hard to make their sales numbers, serve their customers, and help their peers along the way.

Sticks: Why (most) punishments do not work
So, certain kinds of extrinsic rewards can work. But what about punishments? What about using sticks to get people moving? The stick relies on fear—fear of job loss, ridicule, demotion, or other kinds of consequences. Sadly, the use of fear can be a motivator, at least in the short term. But the long-term fallout of this kind of strategy is enormous. People who work under threat of punishment become defensive and cynical. They spend their time and energy lying low (or plotting revenge). And when crouched down in survival mode like this, it’s impossible to think creatively or produce high-quality work.

If you’re looking for ways to create an environment where people are driven to do their best work, you’ll need to think beyond carrots and sticks. It’s a bit trickier, perhaps a little messier, but if you want to create a thriving organization, you’ll need to consider motivation from the inside out.

My next post deals with the intricacies of intrinsic motivation. In the meantime, here’s the link to Dan Pink’s book. Very worthwhile reading.

Until next time . . .