employee motivation is more than carrots and sticks

Employee motivation is more than carrots and sticks. (Image via flickr.com/Opensourceway)


The traditional way to inspire employee motivation, the carrot-and-stick method, is under scrutiny. Studies into human behavior and psychology reveal a much more nuanced set of factors is at play. Experts are encouraging companies to take a more holistic approach to motivation for best results.
The carrot-and-stick method focuses solely on reward and punishment. An employee is enticed with the promise of a prize (bonus, pay raise) and dissuaded from bad behavior with threats of discipline (docked wages, demotion).
Employing these external motivators is often still effective, but companies see a better response with the addition of a more multifaceted approach to employee motivation, according to a Psychology Today report “‘Carrot and Stick’ Motivation Revisited by New Research.”
The problem with relying on carrots and sticks alone is that it leaves crucial human needs unmet, while in some instances actually destroying creativity and other workplace positives.
Discussing Daniel H. Pink’s book Drive, Psychology Today‘s Ray Williams writes, “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 — the drive to do something  because it is meaningful.”
In addition, how people react to external motivators such as rewards and discipline varies and is influenced by our genetics, according to a study into dopamine and serotonin at the Donders Institute in Nijmegen and New York University, as described in the Psychology Today article.
Williams concludes that using the carrot-and-stick approach alone, without consideration for other employee needs, is from a bygone era.
It “worked well for typical tasks of the early 20th century — routine, unchallenging and highly controlled,” he writes. “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.”
So what are the alternatives? What motivates people more? Pink identifies three common desires:

  • Autonomy: control our own lives and decision-making (e.g., a flexible work schedule)
  • Mastery: continual improvement at something that matters to us (e.g., opportunities for learning and career advancement)
  • Purpose: doing things in the service of something larger than ourselves (e.g., understanding and identifying with corporate goals)

Three other experts, in an article for Harvard Business Review — Nitin Nohria, Boris Groysberg and Linda Eling Lee — identify a total of four fundamentals needed for complete employee motivation: acquisition (such as a salary), bonds (feelings of love, care and belonging), comprehension (understanding the right thing to do), and defense (of ourselves, our property and accomplishments).
What this all boils down to is a more complex set of motivational factors than what can be achieved with a simple reward or punishment.
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,” Williams writes.
Think of how your company can give external motivators more power by harnessing these intrinsic factors. Let’s use, as an example, the employee gift or bonus. A company that ties this reward to performance — and accompanies it with heartfelt, personalized gratitude — will motivate an employee more than a company that simply doles out holiday bonuses indiscriminately and with no accompanying recognition.
The carrot-and-stick approach isn’t obsolete, but today’s competitive workplace needs more to succeed.
Want to find out more on employee motivation using workplace recognition? Download our free eBook, “The Ultimate Guide to Employee Gift-Giving”.
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