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Monday, August 17, 2020

Motivating Employees Is Not About Carrots or Sticks

The "carrot and stick" approach is an idiom that refers to a policy of offering a combination of reward and punishment to induce good behavior. It is named in reference to a cart driver dangling a carrot in front of a mule and holding a stick behind it. The mule would move towards the carrot because it wants the reward of food, while also moving away from the stick behind it, since it does not want the punishment of pain, thus drawing the cart.

Thus, an individual is given carrot i.e. reward when he performs efficiently and is jabbed with a stick or is given a punishment in case of non-performance.

Leaders are encouraged to rely on the carrot versus stick approach for motivation, where the carrot is a reward for compliance and the stick is a consequence for noncompliance. But when our sole task as leaders becomes compliance, trying to compel others to do something, chances are we’re the only ones who will be motivated.

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).

Motivating people to do their best work, consistently, has been an enduring challenge for executives and managers. Even understanding  what constitutes human motivation has been a centuries-old puzzle, addressed as far back as Aristotle.

The things that make people satisfied and motivated on the job are different in kind from the things that make them dissatisfied. Ask workers what makes them unhappy at work, and you’ll hear them talk about insufficient pay or an uncomfortable work environment, or “stupid” regulations and policies that are restraining or the lack of job flexibility and freedom. Environmental factors can be demotivating, but even if managed brilliantly, fixing these factors won’t motivate people to work harder or smarter.

It turns out that people are motivated by interesting work, challenge, and increasing responsibility — intrinsic factors. People have a deep-seated need for growth and achievement.

The better employees feel about their work, the more motivated they remain over time. When we step away from the traditional carrot or stick to motivate employees, we can engage in a new and meaningful dialogue about the work instead.

In Drive, Daniel Pink, describes “the surprising truth” about what motivates us. Pink concludes that extrinsic motivators work only in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances; rewards often destroy creativity and employee performance; and the secret to high performance isn’t reward and punishment but that unseen intrinsic drive to do something because it’s meaningful.

True motivation boils down to three elements: Autonomy, the desire to direct our own lives; mastery, the desire to continually improve at something that matters to us; and purpose, the desire to do things in service of something larger than ourselves, Pink says. Joining a chorus of many, he warns that the traditional “command-and-control” management methods in which organizations use money as a contingent reward for a task, are not only ineffective as motivators, but are actually harmful.

The carrot-and-stick approach worked well for typical tasks of the early 20th century – routine, unchallenging and highly controlled. For tasks where the process is straightforward and lateral thinking is not required, rewards can provide a small motivation without harmful side effects.

However, jobs in the 21st century have become more complex, more interesting and more self-directed, and this is where the carrot-and-stick approach has become unstuck. The implications for leaders are significant. They must both be cognizant of the latest research on motivation, and take action to make those organizational and relationship changes.

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