Aaah, carrots and sticks. The old motivational technique that make employers happy (because it is simple) and employees cringe (because it often doesn’t work).

carrots and sticks

At first glance the concept of carrots and sticks seems to make intuitive sense, doesn’t it? We all know from experience that a juicy reward (carrot) can make us work harder, but so can the prospect of punishment (stick) in case we don’t work hard enough. And if we look back into the past, this kind of incentive system has worked out pretty well for a lot of companies as well as their employees. So why not use carrots and sticks as much as possible?

Well, says Daniel Pink, author of ‘Drive’, they can work in certain situations. But in many others they don’t. According to him, most managers are painting with a much too broad brush. Pink argues that whether or not carrots and sticks work depends on the person who is doing the task as well as the task itself. If the work is heuristic rather than algorithmic, chances are high that carrots and sticks won’t work. Nor will they work when a person is intrinsically rather than extrinsically motivated.

The problems caused by carrots and sticks

Using carrots and sticks in the wrong circumstances can cause a myriad of unwanted problems:

1. They can extinguish intrinsic motivation

Rewarding people for higher performance can easily make them work harder in short term, but will diminish their intrinsic motivation in the long run. This considered the hidden costs of ‘carrots’. Suddenly you are not doing the work for yourself anymore, but for an external motivation, which is not enough to keep you going when times get tough.

2. They reduce performance

Using rewards such as money undermine the willingness of people to perform well, especially when the work is challenging, creative or mentally demanding (heuristic work).

3. They crush creativity

Rewards narrow one’s focus. For straight-forward tasks that can work well, but if creativity is needed to find a solution, using carrots and sticks will plain hinder people from getting there.

4. Crowding out of good behaviour

We like doing good for the mere sake of doing good. If we get rewarded for it, it takes away our intrinsic motivation. Case in point: people donate less blood if they get paid for it!

5. Carrots and sticks increase unethical behaviour

When people are forced to reach certain goals or targets, they tend to find shortcuts or ways to cheat the system. They don’t care about the goal anymore, they just want the reward or avoid the punishment.

6. They can become addictive

Once you reward people for completing a certain task, they will get used to that and expect this kind of reward any time they complete the task. It will however not make them excel anymore, just like an addict they will need the reward in order to work “normally”.

7. They can foster short-term thinking

If you you are focused on just getting your reward (like an addict) no matter how (see point 5), this diminishes the depth of thinking. You don’t care anymore about long-term consequences, but just want the “quick hit”.

When carrots and sticks do make sense

So after hearing all this, what could possibly justify using carrots and sticks at all? When would it actually make sense to use them? Well, there are few circumstances that still justify them as a way to motivate people.

First of all, if a task is boring. If  it is repetitive and there is no creativity needed to complete it, carrots and sticks can help to make people do this kind of task faster.

Secondly, if there is no larger purpose connected to it. A purpose can make people intrinsically motivated to complete even boring tasks, but if this purpose is not given, the drive can be increased by rewards and punishments.

How to use carrots and sticks if necessary

If they have to be used, carrots and sticks should be used only in the situations described above and even then only with extreme caution. Daniel Pink gives a couple of pointers on how to do this exactly:

boring task

1. Acknowledge that the task is boring

This shows that you understand that this particular work is neither intrinsically motivating nor creatively challenging.

2. Offer a rationale why the task is necessary

Painting people a bigger picture can give them a larger purpose and increase motivation.

3. Let people complete the task their own way

Be clear about the outcome you need. But giving people the freedom to find the best way themselves increases autonomy as well as creativity.