“I’ve tried everything — reward and punishment — yet nothing works …” No doubt you’ve blurted those words with a gulp of exasperation wanting to know, “What do I do?” to get my team to perform.
Motivating sounds so easy when you listen to the speeches on YouTube and read the popular business books, but it never quite works out the way we think it will. Giving employees a little more money or instilling the fear of the boss is not supposed to result in you being frustrated that nothing works. The carrot or stick is believed to be the answer.
The idea is that you should use a combination of rewards and punishment to induce the behaviour you want, or more specifically the results you want. The axiom of the carrot and stick is derived from the carriage driver who entices his horse by dangling a carrot from a stick just out of the reach of the horse’s mouth and as a back-up plan hold a stick so the horse feels the threat of the whip.
The idea is the horse will keep reaching forward because he wants the food. And if he doesn’t, whack. So the horse should keep going forward to get the carrot and move away from the stick since he doesn’t want the punishment.
We have been led to believe by the ‘pop’ management authors that the carrot works, and when it doesn’t, the back-up plan of the stick will.
I want to believe this, but it’s not true. I really wish everyone was motivated by rewards or at least by avoiding negative consequences. Continuing to hold to this idealised thinking just means your leadership suffers.
Some people are not motivated by reward, you give the promise and there is no change in their performance, which really means there is no change in their attitude.
The opposite of this is the stick. Before you try to put words in my mouth, I am not saying ditch the carrot and go for the stick. This idea is that if rewards don’t work, the stick will. Well, it doesn’t for everyone.
Actually, there is a part of your workforce for whom neither reward nor fear will work. They are ambivalent to both.
If you are fortunate to have a consortium in your workforce for whom the carrot works, great. And the same for the stick — I grimace as I say this hesitantly. Well, at least you know one of the motivators. But what about everyone else?
One of our kids is like this, we offer him incentives to do what he should and there is no change at all. A promise of some new piece of technology in exchange for improved grades and he doesn’t change any study habit. On the other hand, the fear of punishment is met with an equally apathetic response. Exasperated I cried out: “What do I do?”
What do you do when neither the carrot nor stick works?
For way too long, I held to my position that one of the two approaches must work, alternating between promises of gain and pain. Still neither worked. Then I took a step back and observed what got him to do something, and I discovered a third approach — contagious motivation.
He excelled when he worked alongside someone, namely me, who was focused and working hard. Therein lies the key — don’t leave him alone, rather match him up with someone who is motivated and he will be. His issue was he was not internally motivated — his came through somebody else.
I took this new insight from home to my clients and it worked. Those who did not respond to the stick or carrot were motivated serendipitously through others. The engine for their motivation needed to be hooked to someone else’s fully charged battery.
You can motivate by reward, by fear and you’ll reach part of your workforce. For those who have you crying out, “What do I do?”, employ contagious motivation.
By Dr. Tommy Wier
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