Skip to content

Carrots and Sticks: Understanding Motivation

Leaders are encouraged to rely on the carrots and sticks approach for motivation, where the carrot is a reward for compliance and the stick is a consequence for noncompliance. But when your sole task as leaders becomes compliance, trying to compel others to do something, chances are you’re the only ones who will be motivated. Even if the metaphor has been around for quite some time, employees are not like proverbial donkeys who can be lured with a carrot or beaten with a stick to make them climb the mountain. Never forget this. The psychological contract between an employee and their employer goes way beyond the pay and rations or the rule book. The psychological contract is a combination of unwritten mutual obligations and expectations between the employee and employer, which can be specific to individual employees and can change over time. This concept was developed by Argyris and Schein in the 1960s and boils down to the perceived balance between the amount of work, loyalty and commitment an employee puts into the job, and the pay, conditions, and general treatment they receive in return from their employer. How do you use this to the advantage of everyone? How do you motivate your employees to be the best they can be?

Understanding motivation

Because it’s all about individual perception, you can’t hope to always be in control of the psychological contract, but you can build trust and inspire loyalty, which are key features to motivate your employees. You can start doing this by following some simple principles.


Be consistent in how you treat employees and in how you apply the rules


Be open to having conversations with employees, and actively listening to what they have to say


Be honest by telling employees how it is, even if the news is a disaster


Admit when you don’t know the answer, or you’ve made a mistake


Deal with issues when they arise, rather than burying your head in the sand


Recognize employees for going beyond the call of duty, even if it’s as simple as saying ‘thank you’


Keep your promises, and don’t make any promises that you can’t keep


Acknowledge employees’ individual needs and preferences, even if you can’t always meet them

Video: Carrots and Sticks: Understanding Motivation

Carrots, sticks or something else?

Is this the only thing you should do to motivate employees? Nope. I’d also like to suggest a new dialogue that embraces the key concept that motivation is less about employees doing great work and more about employees feeling great about their work. The better employees feel about their work, the more motivated they remain over time. When you add this to the mix of the traditional carrots and sticks to motivate employees, you can engage in a new and meaningful dialogue about the work instead of just the typical actions. What does this mean? For one thing, you have to share context and provide the relevance of the projects. No one can steer a ship in the dark. Or maybe a few people, who knows? On the other hand, you as a manager should be able to anticipate roadblocks to enable progress. If you don’t give them the correct tools to do their best, they will not do their best. And, finally, check in to assess your own motivation. Because if YOU are not motivated, how can you expect your team to be?

Don’t rely only on old methods and tricks to motivate employees. Talk with your team about the relevance of the work they do every day. Be proactive in identifying and solving problems for your employees. Recognize employee contributions in specific, meaningful ways on a regular basis. Connect with your own motivation, and share it freely with your team. Pull out the carrots and sticks, but also have meaningful conversations with your team. You’ll be well on your way to leading a highly motivated team. Trust me.

Related posts

Leave a Comment