What’s Up Doc, the carrot or the stick?

What does organisational analysis have in common with Bugs Bunny? In the context of today’s post is has a lot to do with carrots.

The Carrot and Stick approach to management.

The evolution of management theory and human resource management principles has taken us beyond referring to our workforce using metaphors that compare them to beasts of burden. However the term “carrot and stick” is still often used when referring to the range of motivational and disciplinary tools, between incentivising and chastising, that management uses to address differing situations where members of the workforce might react differently to particular  circumstances. More recently this has meant greater emphasis on identifying motivators that will induce empoyees to pursue excellence rather than using sanctions as a warning against poor performance.

However, in some organisations there remain subtle threats of retribution for underachievement, such as withholding of promotion, assignment to less fulfilling roles or just exclusion from favour.

How human nature determines responses to organisational issues.

Our study of organisations tells us that there are foreseeable outcomes that can arise in work environments where the employees’ anticipation of reward or punishment from a given set of conditions will determine their predisposition toward how the outcomes asked of them are delivered. That is, where Management has a predictable response to particular scenarios, it can trigger  self-fulfilling outcomes by virtue of the expectation employees have of the treatment they will receive according to their results…and it doesn’t just apply to individuals.

If units within an organisation think they can predict Management’s response to given circumstances human nature will dictate their approach.

There is a saying in analysing organisations that “what gets measured gets managed“. Equally a new set of management proverbs along similar lines can be compiled as follows.carrotstick

  • What might get rewarded gets priority.
  • What might get punished gets hidden.
  • What is interesting gets attention.
  • What is boring gets neglected.
  • What might be enjoyable is sought after.
  • What might be unpleasant is avoided.
  • What looks like succeeding breeds confidence.
  • What looks like failing breeds resentment.

How effective is the Carrot and Stick approach?

Consider the motivational outcomes of two very different scenarios –

  • Being rewarded for good outcomes achieved from enjoyable, interesting tasks that are given every chance to succeed; or
  • Being punished for poor outcomes from boring, unpleasant tasks that are unsupported and prone to fail.

There could be both positive and negative effects on each of the individuals or teams experiencing these outcomes. In the former case the reward could generate eargerness to repeat the success or it could generate complacency that might act against similar success next time. In the letter case, the sanction might spur on improved performance next time or equally cause discouragement and resignation to continued failure.

Somewhere in the middle there is still the opportunity to encourage those who have had to struggle with the boring and uninteresting and perhaps failed despite their best efforts. In these cases there might yet be another wise adage –

What provides learning creates potential that should be nurtured.

Is there an alternative to the Carrot and Stick approach?

The first step is to abandon the assumption that employees are only motivated to do better by the offer of additional reward or the fear of punishment. Efective leadership and organisational management is more than able to elicit high performance from its workforce without needing to dangle a carrot before it or hold over it the threat of the stick.  Being able to identify the cause and effect scenarios that might give rise to the pro-performance and anti-performance influences in your own organisation can help establish an environment that is dominated by constructive dialogue and coaching rather than either the carrot or the stick.

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