Articles

What Is Wrong With Sticks And Carrots – They Work, Don’t They?

April 12, 2018 - By Wendy Lambourne, Director, MA Industrial and Organisation Psychology Registered Psychologist with SA Medical & Dental Council

Conventional managers the world over view their jobs as achieving a result(s) through others. There are of course many ways of getting people to do what needs to be done. Generally speaking though there are really only two options: ways which are hard (the “stick”), and ways which are soft (the “carrot”).

Traditional managers will argue that “sticks” and “carrots” work. They will say that they have been successfully used to achieve the desired organisational outcomes over the last hundred years and will continue to be so.

They are absolutely right that both coercion and persuasion do work in the short term. There are many examples of dramatic improvements in productivity through the use of both penalties and incentives. People, in other words, can be driven to perform in response to both the “stick” and the “carrot”.

What is not acknowledged, however, is the inevitable consequence, in the fullness of time, of the use of both the “stick” and the “carrot”.

All forms of coercion essentially motivate through fear. People understandably feel that they are being forced, even bullied, into doing things. They comply, but only to avoid the negative consequences to them of not doing so. In due course they resist. They stop taking initiative, they do exactly what is asked and nothing more, they are no longer committed. Simply put, there is no longer any energy in the place.

The use of “carrots” is even worse. When people do something in response to a “carrot” they are doing it out of greed, to get what they want. At the same time, they feel that they are being manipulated. Their natural response in this case will be retaliation, not resistance. They will seek an opportunity to manipulate back, not just to take the other on but to take them out.

In both instances, the employee reaction is predictable. This is because all people are hardwired to resist coercion and to retaliate when they feel manipulated.

With both “sticks” and “carrots” people will do what is required, not because they “want to” but because they “have to”. In the face of coercion, they give what is required out of fear of punishment. In response to some form of enticement, they give in order to get.

“Sticks” and “carrots” get movement but not willingness. Employees will only contribute if either the “stick” or “carrot” is present. In their absence, employees are inert.

The problem with “sticks” and “carrots” is that they absolutely do not engage the hearts and minds of people. Worse still, they bring out the worst in human nature – fear and greed.

Wendy Lambourne
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