Which is best for motivating a team – carrots or sticks?

Piers Bishop · July 11, 2016

We spend a lot of time debating the problems of motivating a team – when to use carrots or sticks, or what level of bonus might be appropriate for a particular employee.  This is odd, because for almost all of our time on this earth there wasn’t any money, but despite that we still managed to pull our way out of the primordial swamp and up to the top of the evolutionary tree.

So how did we get to be number 1 among all the species on the planet?

The whole history of our species is one of a relentless (and largely unpaid) effort to understand and control our environment, to learn how and why things happen and to make them better. Just watch a baby struggling to engage with the world, watching minutely to see what connects with what, desperate to understand and control the world, and look at the joy on its face as it learns how to put the round plastic thing in the round hole … it’s clear that human beings already contain all the motivation anyone could ever need.

If you can tap into this innate motivation you will get the best out of your people, but otherwise it’s back to incentives and sanctions – carrots and sticks. The resulting efforts to meet targets distract employees from the real work, wasting time and money.

Whatever raw material you use in your business, you will only get the results you want if you understand the properties of that material.  So it is with the people; real motivation and engagement start when the workplace understands what they need and makes that the basis of people management.

Want to know what those needs are? Just ask people what it was like doing the best work they ever had, and what made it so good. We can be pretty sure what they’ll say – you might get the odd person who mentions money but that’s pretty rare, as long as your staff are getting enough to live on.

There are many ways of categorising what people need at work, but our own 4C model is a good place to start getting a handle on this as it mirrors the experiences people mention when you ask them about their best-ever work.

So it turns out that it’s not even about carrots or sticks. Making the workplace somewhere people want to be is just a matter of understanding the practical, social and emotional needs of the human being. WeThrive makes it easy to know which staff need what, and not a carrot in sight…