Ditch the carrot and stick method and get creative with motivation

David McCrae | 25th November 2016

How would you rate your abilities as a motivator? Are you sticking to the same old methods and assuming your staff are motivated because you haven’t received any complaints?

Traditionally, when we want our people to do more of something we will give them incentives such as money, accolades or prizes (we’ll call this “the carrot.”) If we want them to do less of something, then we may slap them with a sanction or a reprimand (we’ll call this “the stick.”) If you rely on these types of methods, then Mr Motivator can sleep soundly – safe in the knowledge that he won’t be knocked off his perch any time soon.

Author and economist Dan Pink points to some startling research that suggests the “carrot and stick method” is not just ineffective, it will actually reduce your employee’s motivation too. Want some proof?

A study was conducted in India, where participants were asked to complete a variety of challenges, such as unscrambling anagrams, tossing tennis balls at a target, and recalling strings of digits. These participants were given different levels of reward if they could attain a certain performance target in each of these tasks. The low reward group received 4 rupees (a day’s pay), the medium reward group received 40 rupees (two weeks’ pay), and the high reward group received 400 rupees (nearly 5 months’ pay) if they achieved their targets. What the researchers found that was the medium reward group did not perform any better than the low reward group, and the high reward group performed worse than the others. This is not an isolated example.

You may be familiar with the “candle and tack box” problem? You are tasked with pinning the candle to the wall in such a way as the wax won’t drip down the wall. The answer is to take the tacks out of the box, pin the empty box to the wall, and use that as a platform for the candle. It requires “thinking outside the box.” Again, when you offer rewards for the speed of completing this task, on average the higher the incentive the longer the completion time was. Does this mean incentives can reduce performance and hamper creativity? This is not good for your business!

Dan explains that the “carrot and the stick” model reduces people’s Intrinsic Motivation. This is someone’s inner desire to do something. When you have things in your life that are important to you, you don’t have to be lured in by an incentive to get them done – the completion of the task is reward enough. When you incentivise something, we dull this inner drive. Humans are purpose-driven machines. We don’t like to do things solely because we’re paid to do them; we want to believe in the cause and reasoning behind the task – your workers are no exception to this rule.

Dan proposes three components that need to be in place to activate this Intrinsic Drive. The one that we will be focusing on is Autonomy. This requires releasing the shackles from people, and giving them more control over their work. If the mere thought of makes you quake with apprehension, then perhaps you might want to hear the example of a small company who executed this technique perfectly… does the name Google ring any bells?

Google allows their employees to spend 20% of their time working on projects of their choice. Both Gmail and Google Translate were products of this! When people are granted autonomy, they don’t slack off, they typically become more creative and innovative.

If you would like your company to be more like Google, there are four T’s that you can influence to make it happen:


Give people a choice over the type of tasks they want to perform. Instead of cracking the whip and assigning people to projects, you should instead get their unique insight and opinion on what they want to do. People will choose the task that resonates with them most and that they are best equipped for. This will produce a better result than an impersonal task they are forced into undertaking . You will of course need to provide boundaries and ensure the task is relevant; but the basic principle of the model will reap great benefits for your worker’s motivation and ultimately their productivity.


Law firms provide us with the perfect example for this one – billable hours. The billable hour changes lawyers focus from output (producing winning results) to input (registering higher numbers of hours). This encourages procrastination, disengagement and even cheating to get the number as high as possible. To prevent this sort of behaviour (in any sector) you can grant your workers some sovereignty over their time. Give workers autonomy over where and when they work. Focus on results, rather than time spent on the work. Let them manage their own time to get the task done – assuming all projects are in on time, does it really matter how many hours your staff spend on a task?  By instilling trust in your workers, you will empower them to want to be successful and drive your business forward. This is invaluable for your organisation and will have a knock-on effect for other workers.


Call centre work has a chronically high turnover rate. In some call centres, the rate exceeds 100% – meaning that if you record the people working there today, none of them will be there a year later! Call centres are rigid and highly pressured. The reps are required to adhere to company guidelines and must trudge their way through scripts when speaking to a customer. To rub more salt in the wound, many of the worker’s calls will be monitored by a manager too.

Online shoe and clothing company Zappos have adopted a very different approach. They trust their reps to deal with their customers however they see fit. There is no script and there are no managers checking up on the staff. Through granting their reps autonomy over how they achieve their results, Zappos has a turnover rate of almost zero and one of the best rankings for customer service within their sector. Evidently workers who have autonomy and creative control over their workload will be more productive and motivated to achieve results.

Are you familiar with the expression “Teamwork makes the dream work?” – whilst it might be considered a bit soppy, it is also completely accurate. Team dynamics are a vital part of creating positive results for your business. Workers who are part of a self-organised team will typically report greater satisfaction and wellbeing than those in an inherited team – so it is advisable to ask your workers who they want to collaborate with. By allowing your workers to gather into teams and work on shared visions (much like Google with their “20 percent time”) – they will unite to work on projects they are passionate about. The results will speak for themselves.

Now you’ve digested the four Ts. Do you think that you will grant your workers more autonomy across one (or all) of these areas?

For those who are still apprehensive, I suggest that you run a small experiment first – much like Australian software company Atlassian did. They started out by running a 24hr experiment: At 2pm on a Thursday, the CEOs gave their workers 24hrs to work on any project they wanted; providing they could present a tangible result. The experiment produced some vital repairs and innovations within their company. This resulted in them adopting this method and using it at regular intervals.

What small experiment could you conduct to discover the power of autonomy in your company? It may seem a little scary and counter-intuitive at first, but it will be easy to implement and the rewards of having a happy and motivated team are limitless…