Performance Management Blog

Thinking Beyond the Carrot and Stick Theory of Performance
Thinking Beyond the Carrot and Stick Theory of Performance

As it happens, the old carrot and stick theory of inspiring motivation is no longer the best way to entice employees. And perhaps it never was, we just didn’t stop to consider it. Any motivation tied to receiving an enticing reward or facing a “fear factor” sets up a momentary reaction that will most likely end there for the seemingly “rewarded” or “threatened” employee.


Motivation is feeling great about what we do.

In stepping away from the idea of motivating others with the carrot or stick approach and in alignment with Lisa Lai’s HBR article on “Motivating Employees is Not About Carrots or Sticks,” it’s more about encouraging and positively reinforcing people to feel great about the work that they do rather than only about how well they do it. This concept would hold true for both the supervisor and the employee.

It makes sense to consider that motivation is a process that first needs to be present in the motivator. Thinking about this from the viewpoint of an employee, how enthusiastic can they be expected to feel about a proposed project if their supervisor or manager doesn’t first display their own enthusiasm or inspiration for the task?

It has got to be something that you’re passionate about because otherwise, you won’t have the perseverance to see it through.
Steve Jobs


Manager as Motivator

Thinking Beyond the Carrot or Stick Theory of Performance

The idea of the supervisor or manager becoming the cheerleader conveying their passion to their employee for the job to be done adds new meaning to the “manager as motivator” concept. Yet, this is something that a good manager probably already does and may not even realize they’ve been doing as it becomes second nature to them. Inspiring employees should be their mindset.

If a manager shares as much information as possible with an employee about the why and how of an assigned job and the relevance or benefits derived by those who will be impacted from its completion, this can be motivating for the employee. It also creates a feeling of satisfaction or enjoyment due to working on something that causes positivity for others or provides a better future.

A manager who motivates will also understand that an employee may face a barrier or roadblock that complicates or prevents their project from being completed. If this happens or can be anticipated by the manager, they can quickly work with the employee to understand what might be happening and suggest a solution or an idea for resolving it. For the employee, knowing that their manager is there to offer support and guidance, imparts trust and security that is motivating. It also increases job satisfaction and confidence.


Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

In discussing motivation, the terms intrinsic and extrinsic motivation usually come to mind. Intrinsic motivation happens when an individual is motivated by internal desires and is satisfied with being internally rewarded. For instance, suggesting an idea that is well received and implemented, creates a feeling of intrinsic motivation because that idea came from within the individual.

Extrinsic motivation happens when an individual is motivated by external desires or extrinsic rewards. It stems from things such as money, recognition, fame, or praise. For instance, a student who does their homework because they fear parental sanctions is motivated extrinsically. In contrast, if they do it because they find it interesting or believe that this will help them practice and improve their skills, they are internally driven.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation work to get us moving, but the intensity, desire, and quality of our outcomes can be different. The carrot and stick theory of motivation produces an extrinsic motivation because the driving force here comes from external motivators.


The Little Positive Reinforcements That Make Employees Feel Good About Their Work – The Carrot in the Carrot and Stick Theory

Managers can work towards creating a balanced and happy culture in the organization to keep employees motivated.

Some tips:

  • Make employees feel valued: Employees’ morale increases when managers show that they value employees’ contributions to work. A positive work environment increases employee productivity.
  • Work towards being a ‘great place to work’:  Building and maintaining a culture of respect, appreciation, continuous motivation, and constructive feedback promotes the company’s reputation and makes the employees feel genuinely great about working with like-minded people.
  • Prioritize Work-Life Balance: When employees get too occupied with work and are unable to balance their work and life, it becomes the manager’s responsibility to create favorable situations for the hard-working employees to take regular breaks. For instance, giving employees a 2-hour leisure break per week is a great way of showing that the company cares about employees’ personal interests and is willing to give them the time to unwind.
  • Listen to employees: Employees are a great source of ideas. But most of these ideas go in vain as they are never heard. Letting employees speak their minds and put good ideas into action motivates them to do better. The idea is to help employees think and act instead of simply following the commands.
  • Positive Reinforcement and Rewards: The rewards need not always be in the form of certificates, bonuses, or trophies – a simple thank you with a smile also goes a long way in making employees feel good about their work.


Motivation – a continuous process

There is little passion occurring when a one-time reward or carrot is offered and, hopefully, no joy is present when a threat or stick is used as a motivator. Indeed, it seems much more plausible that motivation will occur and remain in place for an employee when their manager positively reinforces good work and conveys personal feelings of passion and positivity about any project they assign to their employee. Feeling good about what one accomplishes and why it is necessary sure sounds more motivating than devouring a carrot because no matter how healthy a carrot may be, it’s just a one-moment fix!


PMC provides proven tools to help involve and engage people for workplace improvement; tools that supervisors can use for innovation and active workplace involvement. If you’d like to learn more, we’re here to support you.

Joan Simmerman

Joan has been involved with PMC since 1986 and has enjoyed being part of the creative process of helping to market and support PMC’s products being used and appreciated by people and organizations in over 40 countries and excited about introducing our new virtual tools for team and workplace improvement.

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