Motivation is a core factor for a successful business and there have been many studies around it, yet there is no definitive answer or a one size fits all solution to motivation and employee engagement. The several elements of motivation differ from person to person as well as circumstances.
A well known motivational concept is the “Carrot and Stick” approach. This analogy is about using rewards and penalties in order to obtain desired results. It refers to the old story that in order to get a donkey to move forward and pull the cart you would dangle a carrot in front of him or hit him with a stick from behind. The result is the same; the horse moves forward.
So the stick represents fear and punishment. It may produce immediate results that derive from prompt compliance. It is only useful in the short term though, as over time increasing levels of punishment would be necessary to obtain the same results and this can backfire in the form of mutiny and sabotage.
The carrot is then an incentive, which can work very well as long as the individual finds the incentive appealing. In this case, the donkey would have to like carrots, be hungry and/or have a manageable and movable load in order for the carrot to work. This is very important as the incentive must be perceived to be attractive enough.
Reward and punishment are significant motivators only if the reward is large enough or the punishment sufficiently severe. For example, management holds out a carrot, offering a week’s paid vacation to the person who has the highest production numbers. 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.
The carrot-and-stick approach worked well for typical tasks of the early 20th century – routine, unchallenging and highly controlled. For these tasks, where the process is straightforward and lateral thinking is not required, rewards can provide a small motivational boost without any harmful side effects.
But jobs in the 21st century have changed dramatically. They have become more complex, more interesting and more self-directed, and this is where the carrot-and-stick approach has become unstuck.
The carrot and stick approach to motivation doesn’t work, especially in work that is complex, requires creativity or involves problem solving. These traditional short-term motivators actually reduce creativity, and foster very short-term thinking at the expense of long-term results. They extinguish intrinsic motivation, diminish performance, crush creativity, crowd out good behavior, encourage cheating, shortcuts and unethical behavior, become addictive and foster short-term thinking.
Modern management techniques tell us to motivate by the carrot and stick but the carrot and stick method doesn’t work unless it’s a simple task with a simple outcome. The more complex a task the less successful the carrot and stick method becomes. Today’s problems are more complex and have unknown solutions. Rewards will narrow our focus and limit our possibilities and aren’t effective with today’s problems we see.