Clients often ask us whether leaders can motivate employees more effectively through the potential to receive a carrot (reward) or a stick (negative consequence). There is not one quick and always correct answer, because it depends upon the individuals involved, the situation, etc. But let’s take a closer look to see what method might work best with employees in your company.

Consequence Based Motivation

The Stick method, or traditional consequence based motivation, operates from the assumption that employees will do as little work as possible.  The use of threat or force is intended to keep them on their toes and performing up to par.

This is a short term motivational tool that can create some undesirable side effects.  First, while fear is active in an employee, thought processes shut down.  People can’t be creative when they are looking over their shoulders.  They don’t work in teams well because they become concerned that someone is out to get them. They are less likely to take initiative because of their worry about whether doing something will get them in more trouble than doing nothing.

When the supervisor uses the stick too often, or even just threatens to use the metaphorical stick, employees can start to become callous. They start to detach from their work rather than engage with it.  The consequence-based method winds up generating the very behavior it was intended to prevent.

Reward Based Motivation

Some companies want employees to have a more positive experience.  Some assume that workers will be drawn toward self-interest, and so they establish rewards for certain desirable behaviors. The rewards might be intermittent, like an annual award for good customer service. Others might be incorporated into the compensation structure, as in a commission structure for salespersons.

You might think that reward-based motivation is automatically more “positive” than consequence based motivation, but that is not always the case.  It can backfire.  In the case of commissioned salespersons, for instance, it only takes a couple of paychecks to become used to the commission-enhanced amount. The commission then only becomes a noticeable when it doesn’t appear in the expected amount. And when it’s lower than anticipated it creates disappointment, frustration, and sometimes even suspicion about how it was calculated.

Recognition can be powerfully motivating (a cost-free carrot). It can also create hard feelings and competitive behavior among your staff. Watch out if the same person or same department is “always” the one in the spotlight, or if the criteria aren’t understood. If you choose to use recognition as a motivational tool it is useful to have several and varied recognition opportunities. When you do so, individuals with differing skills, diverse sales markets, or different roles can have the opportunity to receive positive attention.

Intrinsic Motivation

Both the carrot and the stick assume that you can motivate another person. In the short term both methods above can influence behavior, but in the long term you can’t motivate someone.  What you can do is create a climate in which a person can become self-motivated. Intrinsic motivation is more powerful and sustainable than either the carrot or the stick. Workers naturally want to do work that they enjoy, work at which they feel competent, and work that they can see contributing to the success of the business.  Employees are driven by a sense of purpose and contribution and mastery. This type of motivation comes from inside the employee, not from a supervisor or manager judging performance from the outside.

If you want to increase the opportunity for your employees to be internally motivated, start by matching them to jobs for which they are well suited. Train them thoroughly, and if it is possible, establish the outcomes you want and then let them figure out how to use their skills to achieve the outcomes. It can be helpful to provide performance data on graphs or white boards in work spaces so they can see for themselves how they are doing.  You can help them to set goals for achievement in a variety of areas in their work, and they receive a motivational boost when they are able to move a target to the “goals accomplished” list.