The Carrot and Stick Method: Rethinking Motivation

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Carrots and Sticks Don't Work" by Paul Marciano. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the carrot and stick method when it comes to the workplace? Why doesn’t this method work in the modern day?

The carrot and stick method is when somebody hangs a carrot in front of a donkey and jabs it with a stick to get it to move. This approach is often applied in the workforce—although not with literal carrots and sticks. Author Paul Marciano asserts that trying to motivate employees with financial incentives (carrots) is not the best way to promote good work habits.

Keep reading learn why Marciano thinks financial incentives are outdated.

Why Carrots Are Outdated

In his book Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, Paul Marciano distinguishes between motivation and engagement. In his semantics, motivation refers to short-lived, brittle energy influenced by external factors. Remove the factors, and the employee stops working. Motivational energy tends to burn brightly and briefly without leading to permanent habits.

Engagement is an intrinsic, deep-rooted commitment to the job, organization, team, manager, and customer. Engaged employees work hard for the sake of the organization and because they feel fulfilled.

Much motivation literature makes use of operant conditioning, made famous by the experiments of Skinner and Pavlov. Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behavior occurring in the future. Positive reinforcement is application of positive rewards bringing the person above neutral – like money and compliments. Negative reinforcement refers to cessation of negative stimuli, like electric shocks or complaints (e.g. a mother who picks ups a crying baby is negatively reinforced to pick up the baby more).

Punishment refers to negative consequences that decrease the likelihood of the behavior occurring again in the future. (This is often conflated with negative reinforcement).

Operant conditioning only applies when the likelihood of the behavior changes – otherwise, it doesn’t meet the criteria. Marciano argues that much of management advice uses ineffective strategies based on rewards that don’t change employee behavior

Times Have Changed

Clearly, operant conditioning like the carrot and stick method works on animals and in certain simplistic behaviors like feeding your dog and manual labor. This reflects how labor evolved. Throughout much of history, labor was performed by slaves or criminals, and punishment for bad work was corporal punishment or death. During the Industrial Revolution, management science evolved to handle simplistic assembly line work that could be easily measured and boosted. 

As technology improved, the nature of work changed to more complex knowledge-based work, and our understanding of psychology improved. Maslow’s hierarchy gave a new paradigm for understanding motivation, away from simple rewards to a spectrum covering base needs to self-actualization and fulfillment.

Employees have also changed their preferences. While WW2-era employees focused on working hard and not obsessing over happiness, today’s employees seek mental health, job satisfaction, and fulfillment. Money is less commonly a motivating factor – often it’s a Hygiene factor, meaning it matters when it’s missing, and matters especially when the employee feels she is unequally compensated. Workers today tend to be less consumerist, thus decreasing the impact of monetary rewards. Finally, workers no longer feel that companies are loyal to their employees, given corporate scandals, outsourcing, downsizing, and lack of benefits.

So a new type of management system is needed to engage employees.

The Carrot and Stick Method: Rethinking Motivation

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Paul Marciano's "Carrots and Sticks Don't Work" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Carrots and Sticks Don't Work summary:

  • How to motivate your employees and teammates to do a better job
  • How to know if you're a terrible manager
  • Why the carrot and stick motivation model doesn't work anymore—and what to do instead

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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