Carrot vs Stick: What Actually Motivates Employees?

Carrot vs Stick: What Actually Motivates Employees?

Employee motivation is a crucial part of any successful business. However, terms like 'carrot' and 'stick' might be outdated. Is there another option?

When you think about motivating someone, do the words 'carrot' and 'stick' come to mind? It wouldn't be surprising if that was the case. We have thought for some time now that motivation is as simple as rewarding good behavior and punishing bad behavior. But if it was that simple, shouldn't we all be great at it by now?

Unfortunately, keeping people motivated isn't that easy, especially in a workplace environment. And it is here that it is especially important; a business full of employees who don't care if the company succeeds or fails is unlikely to do well. It is crucial, therefore, that HR departments learn how best to encourage their workforce.

Carrot or stick?

The overarching debate over motivation is whether it is more effective to give employees positive feedback when they do something right - the carrot - or to be negative when they do something wrong, which is of course the stick. There is a lot of debate surrounding this, but the recent trend has been towards the carrot.

For example, one study found that medical staff were significantly more likely to wash their hands before and after entering a patient's room when a scoreboard was introduced. It gave the staff positive feedback whenever they washed their hands, as well as increasing their 'hand-hygiene score'.

This is especially interesting, as the possible 'stick' in this situation was extremely serious; namely, the spreading of disease. Yet despite this, the small amount of positive feedback proved to be a better motivator.

Are these tactics still relevant?

The evidence certainly suggests that rewards are more effective than punishments. However, are either the best way of approaching employee motivation? Many influential figures in the business world think they are outdated and inefficient, relying on an old-fashioned approach of top-down management.

For example, Christine Comaford - a business strategist specializing in leveraging neuroscience for improved results - writes in Forbes that the carrot and stick approach is only effective in the short term.

In the long-term, she said, "the carrot raises the anxiety level for non-performers, while people who are already performing are not stretched". On the other hand, she added: "The stick focuses attention on behaviors that don’t work and on the situations that preceded them."

Empowerment as motivation

So what does work, if rewards and punishment are futile? One suggestion is that employees become more engaged and motivated if they are made to feel empowered within the business, in anything from creative sessions to making a difference in the wider company.

This is where we can see the difference between new management and the top-down style of the past. Rather than telling your employees what to do, you are including them in decision-making, even if it is only on a small scale. This means they get to contribute to solving problems, and that in itself is a huge motivation.

Best-selling business author Bernard Marr gives some advice as to how to achieve this feeling of empowerment, and part of it involves avoiding having too much structure. He said:

"Organizations with strict formal processes strangle the motivation of those who wish to make an impact. They give up without even trying because the regulations are set."

Emphasize acknowledgement over reward

Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Lisa Lai recommends employers recognize their workforce's contributions and show their appreciation in order to motivate their staff. However, isn't this just the same as providing them with a reward, and didn't we find that wasn't a good long-term strategy?

In fact, acknowledgement is quite different to reward, and when it comes to motivation it is much more powerful. One example is with salary: if you make sure your employees are paid more, that's a reward. If you make sure they're paid fairly, that's acknowledgement. And ultimately, that's what most people are looking for.

Employees like to know their contributions are noted and their day-to-day work matters. They understand that they can't receive a reward for everything they do, but if they achieve a milestone or go above and beyond their duties, it is crucial to acknowledge this, preferably in front of others. This way, they will feel valued, which is the biggest motivation of all.

Insights for Professionals provide free access to the latest thought leadership from global brands. We deliver subscriber value by creating and gathering specialist content for senior professionals. To view more HR content, click here.

Insights for Professionals