The Carrot and Stick Approach to Motivation


Employee engagement is an overlooked aspect of running an organization. But keeping your employees motivated goes beyond the traditional carrot and stick approach. 



  • The Carrot and Stick approach to motivation is an old-school motivational theory that many organizations still use – although it has been proven in-effective 
  • Keeping employees engaged and motivated is extremely important, especially during the current situation 
  • The best way to keep employees motivated is to make them feel good about their work. There are a number of ways to do that, such as respecting their capabilities, sharing the why, recognizing contributions, and providing opportunities for growth.  


Employee Engagement is one of the most overlooked aspects of running an organization, yet disengagement can cost companies anywhere between $450 and $550 billion every year, according to a report by the Harvard Business Review. 

In light of the current global health and economic crisis, now, more than ever, must we ensure that our employees are not only engaged, but motivated to continue work. A lot of organizations have had to face retrenchments and a reduced workforce, most of whom are struggling to keep up with all the challenges of this pandemic – both in their personal and professional lives. 

But what can companies do to keep employees intrinsically motivated, especially now when everything feels like it is falling apart? We constantly hear news of layoffs, reports of a continuous decline in economy, and a sudden rise in unemployment. 

To keep employees motivated, many may turn to the Carrot and Stick approach. But is it effective? Especially now? 


What is the Carrot and Stick Approach anyway? 

For the longest time, many organizations have turned to the old carrot and stick approach. This is an old school motivation theory introduced during the industrial revolution by English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, based on the psychological premise that human beings are motivated by the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. 

It comes from the story of a donkey – you all probably have heard it at some point. The story goes that if you want the donkey to move forward, you dangle a carrot in front of him. If he refuses to move, you strike him with a stick. The carrot serves as a reward for compliance, while the stick is punishment for non-compliance. 

In the context of the workplace, Bentham’s key to motivation is to reward employees with thinks like money, promotions, and other benefits when they perform well or exhibit behaviors that you want.  

Why This Doesn’t Work 

Traditionally, this has not been a very effective tool of motivation, since its sole focus is on compliance rather than true, intrinsic motivation – the type of motivation that will keep your employees going through the most difficult times. 

It assumes that humans are simplistic and can easily be manipulated to react to the application of either pain or pleasure, or reward or punishment. 

But as we all know, humans are complex, whose behavior cannot be explained or controlled by such a simplistic model. 

Think of it this way. Will you truly, always be motivated simply by your salary or your managerial title 


They key is to make employees feel good about their work 

There is a lot that contributes to motivation. But one of the biggest key factors is to make your employees feel good about their work. When they feel good about the work they do or the work they’ve done, they will be more motivated to do more good workThey will also feel more satisfied and are more likely to remain loyal to your organization. 

So, how do you make employees feel good about their work?  


Share the why 

  • It isn’t enough to tell your employees what do. You need to explain to them why it needs to be done. 
  • Simply giving out orders of what to do makes employees feel like droids or mindless machines. 
  • Explaining why, giving context, or providing relevance makes them grasp the importance of the task at hand and why you are asking them to do it. 
  • Sharing the why, and getting feedback as well makes employees feel like they are part of big decisions and will be more motivated to give their best 


Respect their capabilities 

  • You hired them for a reason – always remember that reason 
  • Constantly looking over their shoulders, scolding them, or telling them how to do their jobs makes them feel like you think they cannot get things done without close supervision. This is one of the biggest killers of motivation. 
  • Give them the space to do their job and space to make mistakes. That is how they will learn to overcome the mistakes. 
  • Instead of constantly questioning, show them you respect their capabilities and that you trust them to do their work. 
  • Allowing your employees to work from home is a good way to show that you trust them. But that doesn’t mean you call every hour and message every 10 minutes.  


Recognize contributions and show appreciation 

  • Employees need to feel that their contributions are recognized and that their efforts are appreciated – it's as simple as that. 
  • This lets them know that they are working for something and that they efforts are not in vain. 
  • Let them know when they do a good work, and thank them for any extra effort they put in. 


Provide opportunities to develop their skills along with a path for advancement 

  • Over time, work can begin to feel repetitive, making them feel bored and demotivated. 
  • You need to provide them with continuous opportunities to develop their skills and gain more knowledge 
  • Let them attend important meetings that they wouldn’t always get to attend. 
  • Reassign some of the regular, routine tasks to interns or new employees, and let your long-term employees have bigger roles and responsibilities 
  • Let them attend seminars and take training courses online 
  • Give them an opportunity to “climb the ladder” - promote when deserving of it. Show them and let them know that there is a path for advancement within the company. 
  • If you keep giving big jobs to new hires from outside rather than promoting from inside, they will feel like they are just “stuck” in their position and will not feel motivated to give their best. 


Final Thoughts 

Keeping your employees motivated is a great way to ensure that your organization will succeed. There are many approaches to how you can keep them motivated – way beyond the traditional carrot and stick approach.  

Since we are living through unique times, we need unique ways to keep our employees motivated and our business afloat. Remember to respect your employees’ capabilities, give them opportunities for growth, recognize their contributions, and share the why.  


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