Book Summary: Carrots and Sticks Don't Work, by

Learn the key points in minutes.

Book Rating by Shortform Readers: 4.8 (176 reviews)

This is a preview of the Shortform book summary of Carrots and Sticks Don't Work by Paul Marciano. Read the full comprehensive summary at Shortform.

1-Page Book Summary of Carrots and Sticks Don't Work

Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work decries motivation based around financial incentives, considering these programs brittle and temporary. Instead, author Marciano suggests that people are most motivated when they feel respected by their organization and feel respect for their work. This leads to a model called RESPECT:

  • Recognition: Provide positive feedback for work well done.
  • Empowerment: Give employees training, resources, and autonomy. Then get out of the way.
  • Supportive Feedback: Give corrective feedback from the perspective of a coach. Be specific, timely, and supportive.
  • Partnering: Treat your employees and colleagues like partners. Share the big picture with them and help them think like stewards of the organization.
  • Expectations: Make the expectations of an employee's work clear, and make sure the employee understands them.
  • Consideration: Treat employees like humans, getting to know their personal lives and building rapport. They will trust you and open up about their personal issues, giving you more opportunities to help them.
  • Trust: Keep your word on promises, give credit where it's due, don't micromanage, admit your mistakes.

The full summary contains a wealth of actionables for each of these seven components. Here are some of the most notable recommendations:

  • Direct cash incentive programs rewarding the top performers can decrease intrinsic motivation, aren't motivating for people in the middle or bottom of the performance stack, and destroy teamwork.
  • Employee recognition is part of a supervisor's job. Don’t consider it a waste of time - it’s your job to motivate your team.
  • Feedback should be 80% positive, 20% negative. This raises the contrast of negative feedback. If your feedback is predominantly negative, the urgency of new negative feedback is reduced. Plus, there’s little reward for the employee to improve – she’s not even going to get thanked for improving, so what’s the point?
  • After giving constructive feedback, when you see the behavior you wanted the next time, reinforce it quickly with positive feedback. This will lock in the new behavior.
  • Deliver feedback in the moment, right after you see a problem. Don’t wait, or the employee will wonder why you waited so long.
  • Give positive feedback in the area in which the teammate has the most pride. This reinforces their identity in that area.
  • When expectations aren’t met, consider it your fault by default. Ask them what they understood the task to be, and how they understood the expectations, and why. You may realize that your instructions were terrible.
  • Pull expectations from people. Ask them to list their prioritized goals and rate how well they’re doing. Then give feedback.
  • Explain the purpose behind the goals. This gives them more context for your decisions, and it allows them to make smaller decisions in line with the overall goals of the team.
  • Give examples of the...

Want to learn the rest of Carrots and Sticks Don't Work in 21 minutes?

Unlock the full book summary of Carrots and Sticks Don't Work by signing up for Shortform.

Shortform summaries help you learn 10x faster by:

  • Being 100% comprehensive: you learn the most important points in the book
  • Cutting out the fluff: you don't spend your time wondering what the author's point is.
  • Interactive exercises: apply the book's ideas to your own life with our educators' guidance.

Here's a preview of the rest of Shortform's Carrots and Sticks Don't Work summary:

Carrots and Sticks Don't Work Summary Introduction

After graduating from his PhD program in Clinical Psychology, the author had a terrible experience at his first job. People didn’t care about him on his first day; no one seemed engaged at work; his bosses gave unclear expectations of what he was supposed to do. He quit.

Marciano realized that respect was the center of an engaging workplace. Whenever he felt unrespected, he always disengaged. Over several years, he found the factors forming the acronym RESPECT:

  • ...

Carrots and Sticks Don't Work Summary Chapter 1: Why Carrots are Outdated

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 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...

Carrots and Sticks Don't Work Summary Chapter 2: Reward Incentives Don’t Work

Next, the book covers 20 reasons that traditional reward programs fail to improve employee performance. As defined here, rewards are primarily monetary and given to select top performers for meeting metrics (picture bonuses for exceeding sales quotas). They’re also commonly considered “incentives” or performance bonuses. Rewards can also be recognition programs, including recognizing employees publicly or giving awards.

In simple terms, think of rewards as carrots designed to lure people into performing the desired behavior.

1. Rewards fail because they are short-term.

Rewards programs accomplish specific goals in a short period of time. They don’t set up longer term impacts. Diets don’t lead to long term behavior until they become ingrained as healthy eating.

2. Rewards don’t work if the person doesn’t want them.

If the worker doesn’t want the carrot, the behavior won’t be reinforced. For instance, someone may get vacation days she doesn’t use, or she doesn’t want to be recognized as the Monthly Peppiest Employee. In some cases the worker may intentionally lower effort to avoid the reward.

3. Rewards are too narrowly focused.

Rewards programs often target specific narrow goals rather than broader behaviors. For instance, companies often reward making sales at the expense of teamwork, trust, and customer satisfaction.

(Shortform note: recall how Wells Fargo paid narrowly-focused bonuses for creating new accounts, leading employees to defraud bank customers. Had they focused rewards on larger goals like customer satisfaction or word-of-mouth referrals, they would have better avoided the bad behavior.)

4. Rewards focus on the wrong dependent variable.

They focus on the results of behavior, rather than the systems and processes that lead to success in the first place. Imagine rewarding a basketball team for winning games rather than the fundamentals of teamwork, communication, and physical training. The team might be motivated, but they lack the foundation to succeed.

5. Goals can limit performance.

Fixed goals like sales quotas...

What Our Readers Say

This is the best summary of Carrots and Sticks Don't Work I've ever read. I learned all the main points in just 20 minutes.

Learn more about our summaries →

Carrots and Sticks Don't Work Summary Chapter 3: Engaged Employees Do Better

Once again, 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. Engagement buffers against short-term changes in motivation, like time pressure and equipment failures.

To picture the difference between engagement and motivation, imagine that a team is working to meet a deadline. An equipment failure makes it impossible to meet the goal. Do they keep soldiering on trying to achieve the most, or do they give up?

Engaged people do the first, motivated the second.

How Engaged Employees Do Better

Engaged employees tend to do the following:

  • Bring new ideas to work and suggest improvements
  • Take initiative
  • Exceed goals and expectations
  • Are growth-oriented, seeking to improve the self and people around them
  • Encourage and support team members
  • Overcome obstacles
  • Show high levels of discretionary effort
  • Speak with pride about the organization
  • Act as though they have ownership in the business

The benefits extend beyond the employee to the organization as well. Studies show that higher engagement associates with increased profitability, higher customer satisfaction, lower turnover, reduced fraud, and reduced absenteeism.

Unfortunately, studies of employers nationwide show that the majority of American workers are disengaged from their work. They don’t embody the desired qualities above. Clearly, more employers need to

What Increases Engagement

So you know that engagement is important. But how do you increase...

Shortform Exercise: Are You Engaged?

Think about your current work situation and whether the environment increases engagement.


An engaged employee takes initiative, is excited to exceed goals, speaks with pride about where they work, and is committed to the organization. Do you consider yourself engaged? How can you tell?

Carrots and Sticks Don't Work Summary Chapter 4: The RESPECT Model for Engagement

Employees who feel respect for the company and feel respected in return work harder to achieve the group’s goals. They tend to adopt a more giving stance rather than obsessing about personal gain. An effective leader has loyal followers who willingly do what is asked of them.

Respect can come from fear and intimidation, or it can come from sincerity and helpful motives. The latter is more sustainable and inspiring, so the book focuses on the latter.

Respect goes in 5 different directions:

  • Organization: mission, values, and goals
  • Leadership: competency, ethics, fairness
  • Team members: competency, cooperativity, honesty, diligence
  • Work: challenge, reward, value-creating
  • Individual: feeling respected by all of the above

We’ll explain each and how to develop respect in each direction.

Respect for the Organization

Cultural values of ethics, hard work, fairness, and innovation all drive respect. When employees feel respect for the organization, they express pride at working for the organization.

Respect for the overall organization causes employees to work harder. Employees are less likely to burnout. And customers are more likely to trust the organization because of its values.

A practical strategy to develop respect is to give back to the community. A few useful suggestions for volunteer projects:

  • Work on projects that can be completed in one day, to see it from beginning to end.
  • Make the impact concrete and permanent, like building a playground rather than picking up trash.
  • Make teams of people from different departments to work together.
  • Record the event and get media attention, for long term value from the event.

Another strategy is to publicize your organization’s relative strengths. This gives them pride in knowing there’s something special about the company.

Respect for the Supervisor

Supervisors should be hard-working, competent, fair, and compassionate. Good supervisors advocate for the good of the team and don’t leave people behind.

Managers promoted from within tend to be respected...

Shortform Exercise: Think About Peak Respect

Reflect on when you felt the most respect in each of the five directions.


When in your life did you feel the most respect for the organization you worked for?

Carrots and Sticks Don't Work Summary Chapter 5: Recognition

We all desire social belonging and feeling like our efforts are important. Recognition from people, especially your managers, is a very direct way of achieving this. Marciano argues that the ROI of positive feedback is huge – a minute spent on complimenting work can lead to hours of increased productivity. Positive feedback is reinforcement that makes the behavior more likely to happen again, unprompted.

Managers tend to overestimate how much they give recognition and underestimate how important it is to employees. Imagine that some people keep a positive sticky note from their boss for months – it means that much to them.

Failure to reinforce through recognition actually suppresses behavior – if you assign a project and don’t reward hard work to meet its deadline, the worker is less likely to meet the deadline next time. If you admonish a worker for poor behavior, and the worker corrects it but doesn’t receive positive feedback, she’ll fall back to the bad behavior, for there is less reason to correct it. “You don’t get team members to take initiative by focusing on their lack of initiative.”

People tend to acclimate to repeated signals of one kind, and to notice deviations from the norm. If you only provide negative feedback, the next item of negative feedback gets little novel weight – if the worker tries her best but still gets only complaints, there’s little incentive to change. In contrast, a history of positive feedback will make a major complaint feel explosive and note-worthy. The employee won’t want to disappoint someone who’s signaled satisfaction through positive feedback.

Excuses for Not Giving Recognition

Managers often cite reasons for not recognizing employees:

“Employees shouldn’t be thanked for doing what we pay them to do.”

  • Employee recognition is actually part of your job. Your output is the sum of your subordinates’ output, so increasing that value is your job.

“It’s not in my personality.”

  • It’s not in your personality to brush your teeth either, but you do it because it works.

“I have too many direct...

Why are Shortform Summaries the Best?

We're the most efficient way to learn the most useful ideas from a book.

Cuts Out the Fluff

Ever feel a book rambles on, giving anecdotes that aren't useful? Often get frustrated by an author who doesn't get to the point?

We cut out the fluff, keeping only the most useful examples and ideas. We also re-organize books for clarity, putting the most important principles first, so you can learn faster.

Always Comprehensive

Other summaries give you just a highlight of some of the ideas in a book. We find these too vague to be satisfying.

At Shortform, we want to cover every point worth knowing in the book. Learn nuances, key examples, and critical details on how to apply the ideas.

3 Different Levels of Detail

You want different levels of detail at different times. That's why every book is summarized in three lengths:

1) Paragraph to get the gist
2) 1-page summary, to get the main takeaways
3) Full comprehensive summary and analysis, containing every useful point and example

Carrots and Sticks Don't Work Summary Chapter 6: Empowerment

Employees enjoy feeling autonomy, with the freedom to take risks and seek novel solutions. Autonomous employees are helpful because they’re more flexible in responding to novel situations and require less management overhead. They provide the change they want to see in the organization, which increases a feeling of ownership in the company’s success.

Autonomy requires trust from above, information sharing, sufficient resources, training, and decision-making responsibility.

Autonomous employees require information sharing to understand the goals of the organization. Only then can they independently make decisions that don’t detract from the team. (Shortform note: this echoes the concept of “Commander’s Intent,” where the high-level goals are defined specifically enough for the subordinate to know how his personal goals fit in, but vaguely enough to be agile and give the subordinate room to operate freely.) In contrast, keeping employees on need-to-know basis makes them feel untrusted and makes them resort to gossip.

Employees feel empowered when they have the resources to get their job done. They can only feel empowered when roadblocks and cumbersome processes are eliminated, or when they have authority to change them.

Training is one of the highest leverage activities to invest in. In onboarding, training helps develop existing skills in the context of the new organization. Ongoing training promotes an expectation of growth mindset, trust in their ability for growth, and increases engagement with assignments at their limit of challenge. Functionally, growth leads to additional value from the employee, and creates an internal pipeline of candidates for promotion.

Overall, employees who feel well-resourced and trusted believe the organization wants them to succeed.

Actionables for Empowerment

  • Regularly ask employees how you can help them be more successful. Resources? Training? Information?
  • Delegate as much decision-making responsibility as possible to employees....

Carrots and Sticks Don't Work Summary Chapter 7: Supportive Feedback

Managers should provide feedback with the mindset of a coach: I want you to be successful. This viewpoint makes employees feel cared for and lowers defensiveness (compared to the situation if the manager were just berating the employee).

80% of feedback should be positive and reinforce behavior, while 20% should be about improving performance (constructive feedback).

Give feedback often. Lack of support signals to the employee that she doesn’t matter much and there’s no hope for her. This can set off a vicious cycle of disengagement and confirmation bias by the manager (“I knew Tim was no good -- look at how disengaged he is. I’m not going to waste time on him.”).

Good constructive feedback comes quickly after a problem begins. This wastes fewer resources from suffering the problem and makes it less awkward to point out (as opposed to giving feedback on a problem 6 months earlier).

If you give feedback often enough, performance reviews should not contain any surprises. Some managers give so little feedback, positive or constructive, that employees are left in the dark about how they’re doing. Then in end-of-year reviews, the manager shows up with a problem from 8 months ago. How does this feel fair to the employee?

Do not pile up all the bad news to unleash all at once. Would a coach wait until the season’s over to tell his team how much they could improve?

Actionables for Supportive Feedback

  • Weight your feedback to 80% positive, 20% constructive.
  • Make the feedback specific. Help make clear what the actionable is, so it’s not just perceived as your complaining.
  • Give positive feedback in the area the employee has the most interest or pride. If you don’t know what this is, ask what it is.
  • Encourage reciprocal feedback from team members.
  • Provide coaching within 24 hours of becoming aware of the problem. Don’t wait. Make it “in the moment.”
  • Follow up with...

Carrots and Sticks Don't Work Summary Chapter 8: Partnering

The author uses partnering to connote a relationship where parties are treated as equal partners, not as us-them or superior-subordinate.

By making your employees partners on a team, they think like business owners, and they act as stewards of the organization’s values. They can make decisions without waiting for approval. When working as partners on a team, people put the team’s goals before the self and use the best of their collective strengths while nullifying their weaknesses.

To foster this spirit, the manager should emphasize that no one wins unless everyone wins. Managers should also be willing to dive in and get their hands dirty.

Between departments, employees can partner to work on special projects. And outside of the company, organizations can partner with customers and vendors. If you engage all people like they’re on equal footing, giving them information and trust, they’ll enjoy working with you.

Actionables for Partnering

  • Share big picture, long-term vision with employees. Have regular drumbeat meetings and publish department blogs.
  • Share financial info with employees.
  • Involve employees in major decisions affecting the team, like hiring, equipment purchases, and budget.
  • Reach out to internal and external customers for feedback. Work alongside them to fix their problems, rather than...

Carrots and Sticks Don't Work Summary Chapter 9: Expectations

This should be obvious, but it often isn’t: by setting clear goals, you get the outcome you desire. If you don’t tell people what you want, how can you expect to get it?

A failure of an employee to perform is often a failure to communicate clear expectations with employees. As with positive feedback, managers often underestimate the clarity of goals they give to employees.

Employees don’t want to fail, and they don’t want to be yelled at. When’s the last time you purposely failed or felt good about failing? Don’t jump to this conclusion if an employee underperforms. Make sure that the goals you set were crystal clear.

Setting clear goals also allows you to evaluate people fairly. High-performing employees actually prefer clear goals, so their contributions can be distinguished from those of poor performers. “Just do your best” invites too much vagueness.

New employees need clear expectations to give them confidence they’re on the right track – think pointing a ship leaving port in the right direction. You might even make expectations clear during the interview process – what the hours are like, how they’ll be evaluated, what resources they’ll have. Doing otherwise invites dissatisfaction once they come onboard.

Good Goals

Goals should be:

  • Clearly defined. Make the goals measurable. Give a sample of the expected output if possible.
  • Meaningful. By knowing why a goal exists, the employee will be able to make decisions autonomously, especially in emergencies.
  • Challenging but achievable. A manager’s sign read: “I expect great things from you; please expect the same from me.” If people know you see them as great, they do great things.
  • Time-limited. Use deadlines to get items on a worker’s schedule, and timebox items to give clear guidelines on how much time should be spent.
  • Consistent. Don’t change goals on a whim, or workers will feel their current work can be obsolete.

In the other direction, make sure you clearly understand your subordinates’ expectations.

Actionables for Expectations

**Setting...

Carrots and Sticks Don't Work Summary Chapter 10: Consideration

Consideration is giving careful thought to a person. Acknowledging that the person is human and not just a cog develops loyalty, not just in the recipient but also in teammates who witness considerate behavior. This inspires people to show up for work other than to receive a paycheck.

In contrast, acts of selfishness by the company promote tit for tat behavior. The employee has little faith the company cares. If the company doesn’t care about the employee, why should the employee care about the company?

Building a personal connection with employees is important to pave the way for consideration opportunities. The more connected an employee feels to her supervisor, the more she’ll open about personal issues, which will create opportunities for consideration by the supervisor. This creates a virtuous cycle.

Actionables for Consideration

  • Ask specific questions about the employee’s life to demonstrate interest and learn more. This provides more opportunities to be considerate, since they feel more comfortable brining personal issues to you (within reason).
  • Notice when employees are not themselves and tell them you’re concerned.
  • Show proactive consideration by connecting the employee to things she would like.
  • Ask employees for input before big decisions that affect their jobs.
  • Reinforce team members who act considerately.
  • Encourage employees to go home when sick.
  • Be empathetic and flexible during personal or family issues. Trust the person to make the right decision for the job, and don’t treat her like a...

Carrots and Sticks Don't Work Summary Chapter 11: Trust

Trust is confidence in a person and absence of questioning of the person’s motives.

Trust engenders engagement by giving the employee more ownership over her work and not wanting to let the supervisor down. Trusted employees feel more comfortable pitching risky ideas, and they’re more receptive to change as they believe the employer has the employees’ best interests at heart.

In a culture of distrust, ideas are not shared for fear of others exploiting or disparaging them. Motives are constantly questioned – “what is this person up to now?” Untrusting people assume the worst. It crowds out productive thinking.

Some people start out trusting by default, but for others, trust takes years to build. A single mistrustful step can shatter trust like pottery.

Actionables for Trust

  • Provide autonomy and decision-making authority (see Empowerment above).
  • Keep your word on promises and commitments.
  • Give bad news directly to an employee without sugarcoating; don’t let gossip spread.
  • Let employees spend company money within certain limits.
  • Reassure anxious employees that you trust them to do the work.
  • Avoid signaling mistrust through micromanagement or intense monitoring programs. Posing constraints makes people look for ways to circumvent them.
  • Give credit where credit is due; don’t misattribute credit.
  • Explain thoroughly when you override someone else’s decision, or they won’t trust you to uphold their decisions in the future.
  • Probe when you...