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Motivation: toss the carrot and stick

Motivation is a part of leadership, isn’t it?  It’s providing something that makes followers want to go where the leader is trying to lead them.  Traditionally, business has relied heavily on carrot-and-stick motivational tools . . . reward and punishment.  And the carrots (the rewards) usually are money in the form of bonuses or commissions, or have monetary value such as paid time off, tickets to the theater, or dinner for two.  It’s a simple, straight-forward system.  If you do this, we’ll give you that.  However, in many business situations, the carrot-and-stick system fails to provide the motivation it was intended to provide.  In fact, the carrot-and-stick system can sometimes be de-motivating, completely defeating the purpose it was intended to serve.  For more on this, please read below.

Dan Pink is a best-selling author and speaker who describes a wide range of human behaviors in the workplace.  In discussing what motivates people, he talks about studies at leading business schools, funded by the Federal Reserve Bank, showing conclusively that the carrot-and-stick system of motivation works just fine when applied to situations that don’t require much thought, creativity, or problem-solving ability.  However, as soon as a situation requires some cognitive skills, carrots do not motivate low performers at all, and they in fact de-motivate high performers.  Repeated experiments in different cultural and economic settings brought the same results.  So this is not some anomaly . . . it’s the real deal in human behavior.  But how can this be?

Researchers concluded that in highly structured situations with specific, predictable outcomes, carrots narrow the focus of the participants on a specific path to be followed, and that’s a good thing.  However, when creativity or decision-making is required . . . perhaps the path is not very well marked or maybe there are forks in the road . . . we don’t want the participants to be narrowly focused.  On the contrary, we want them to think broadly about all the options, all the variables, and try to mold them into the best possible outcome.  In those situations, carrots don’t work.

So what does work when cognitive skills are needed?

First, according to Pink, you need to take money off the table.  Pay people enough so they’re not worried about money and can focus on their work.  Usually, that means paying them what other people in the company are paid who do comparable work.  Then feed their desire for:

•    Automony.  Give them some freedom to exercise their creativity.  Don’t micro-manage them.
•    Challenge.  Challenges improve their skills.  Improved skills lead to mastery.
•    Significance.  Let them know their work is significant and their contribution is important.

So the main take away here is, when you’re trying to motivate people to do creative, innovative work, think of ways to feed their human needs . . . and keep the carrots in the fridge.

Dan Pink has two terrific videos on this subject.  If you would like to view them, please use the links below.

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