Is it possible we’ve become a bunch of biased soft-touch ‘carrot’ advocates and forgotten the poor old stick?
Possibly. In times gone by (and certainly in more recent times than the harsh Dickension workhouses) the ‘stick’ was the main tool for employee motivation (sometimes literally). That is, employees were motivated by negative consequences for breaking or not living up to workplace rules. But then came the age of the carrot, where employees were motivated to perform through reward and incentive – whether it be financial or otherwise. And the stick all but disappeared, and even became a taboo and primitively regarded people management tool. But, as we so often do, we’ve quite possibly thrown the baby out with the proverbial bathwater.
An interesting research experiment conducted last year by Washington University (St Louis) showed that punishments seemed to be more effective at influencing behaviour than rewards (Kubanek, Snyder & Abrams, 2015). The researchers concluded that negative feedback appears to be more powerful than positive feedback at modifying people’s behaviour.
When you think about it the results of this research experiment aren’t surprising. We are strongly motivated by negative consequences everyday – parking fines, speeding fines, and so forth. But it seems that often in organisations there is a fear in balancing the carrot with the stick. Fear of industrial complaints, employees lodging a workers’ compensation claim, and allegations of unfair employee treatment.
Common sense leadership guru Peter Drucker, on the topic of motivating workers, states in his classic text Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices that different human temperaments respond differently under different conditions, and that ‘carrot and stick have worked for an amazingly long time. One does not lightly toss out the tradition of the ages’.
Makes sense. So is it time to start wielding the big stick for bad employee behaviour? Not necessarily. But it is a good reminder to ensure that employee behavioural and performance expectations are clear and explicit, and that employees are held appropriately accountable for adhering to such standards. This doesn’t have to inevitably constitute ‘punishment’; when used in balance with incentive and reward, the stick can help organisations to engage proactively with employee issues of concern rather than, as is so often the case, avoiding them.
To illustrate this point further think of toasting marshmallows over an open fire. Both the stick and bag of marshmallows are needed – and while the stick can be useful in smacking knuckles, using the stick to help toast marshmallows is arguably a much more productive way to keep fingers from being burnt. This combination of addressing a challenge and providing a reward are a powerful match.
Time to get toasting!