Why carrots and sticks don’t always work

Nov 23rd

I’ve witnessed many board level discussions about performance management systems – they all seem to focus on the technicalities, and to take place against an underlying belief that somehow a perfect cascade of objectives from strategic plan to lowliest employee will make for perfect corporate performance. And the debate then goes into the complex rules that attend theses systems, the rewards that get tacked onto them, and the rafts of performance indicators that are meant to give ever more objective measure of accountability.

Onora O’Neill’s Reith lectures (2002) on a ‘Question of Trust’ gave a powerful critique of the accountability systems being put in place to govern much of professional life (doctors, police, teachers). Those systems, far from rebuilding trust created an environment of detailed control and prescription and went to undermine trust and proper professional practice. Admittedly Baroness O’Neill was delivering her lectures at the zenith of the Tony Blair’s delivery henchmen’s bid to manage everything from 10 Downing Street, with performance dashboards for targets government had set top down – what was happening to crime in local areas; what the teenage pregnancy rates were in Doncaster; and whether the Government’s targets on drug production in Afghanistan were being met.

And I’ve long felt that the way the many organisations seek to motivate their people is based on some naive premises, or simply the crude motivational psychology of ‘if… then..’.

All this has come together for me in a book by Daniel H Pink ‘Drive’. * This is based round the often overlooked theories of intrinsic motivation. In short, we’re motivated to do things because of our desire to them and because of the satisfaction we get from doing them. All the more so in intellectual or creative jobs, where traditional ‘carrot and stick’ approaches just don’t work. Of course, people need to be paid enough to support their life adequately (Maslow), but rarely in creative jobs is reward a major motivator. Key elements of what Pink calls ‘Type I’ system (as opposed to Type X) are autonomy , mastery, and purpose. In Type I systems we are rewarded for what we achieve; we are motivated as much by the satisfaction of doing the job with control over how we do it, with our skill in doing it, and in the knowledge that the job has some overall worthwhile purpose.

Carrots and sticks do have a place. In routine jobs people will work a bit harder to produce a bit more if they get paid for that extra production. That use to be called piece work. But the world of work is rapidly relegating routine work to automated solutions. And the world’s stronger economies are driving value through creative and intellectual jobs.

*Daniel H Pink, ‘Drive, the surprising truth about what motivates us’ (Canongate, 2010)

This article is filed under: employee motivation

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