All carrot and no stick

When we are thinking about managing teams, we often talk about how to motivate team members to be more productive, more effective. We exhort everyone to give 100+% for the sake of the team objectives – whatever targets we set, or have been set by own managers. And we talk about balancing “carrot” and “stick”, some notion of reward and punishment that we think will produce the best results. But, are we looking at this the right way?


The “carrot” part of the equation is often expressed in financial terms, a bonus or other cash incentive that is believes to drive improved performance. But, there is some research, and indeed practical experience, to suggest that this is only effective so far. For many, non-sales related roles, the effect is probably overstated and you rely on it at your peril. Certainly, the value that praise and positive verbal feedback can have is undervalued. Think for a moment about how powerful a simple thank-you can be, particularly in a peer group setting.

And, it is one of the things we are told about the younger generation of employees coming into the workplace (Generation Y). Their education and upbringing has taught (conditioned?) them to expect ongoing and overwhelmingly positive feedback. Not for them the idea of waiting until a job is completed before seeking confirmation, or criticism, as was the case for so-called baby boomers. It is easy to see how praise is good for self-confidence and improving self-image.

The “stick” part of the formula is about criticism or reprimand. A notion that holding out the promise of punishment in return for an under-par performance will also motivate good performance. In my experience, the effect is illusory, the performance will only reach the minimum standard required and the work grudgingly done. Certainly, not the kind of employee behaviour we want. It will not drive customer satisfaction or deliver memorable customer experiences. Quickly too, this kind of negative sanction spirals into disciplinary and formal procedures – which again reinforce poor attitudes and resentment at “management” behaviour.

But what if we decided to offer 100% “carrot”, i.e. not enshrine any form of negative feedback. To wholeheartedly embrace the idea that failure is genuinely an opportunity to learn and improve, an inevitable and valued part of every day work by removing its opposite. I am pretty sure that I do not know how to establish the necessary culture to allow such an idea to flourish, but it is an interesting idea. I wonder if the concept of self-managed teams comes close? I know there are some companies, and indeed national cultures that encourage this approach.

I’ll investigate and report back. In the meantime, if you have ideas or comments that can help me explore this please contribute – I am confident that sharing will be at the root of this idea!