Do We Really Need More Potent Sticks and Carrots?

Abundance Accountability Personal leadership Respect


Story: Why do operating leaders and HR people invest an inordinate amount of resources trying to develop more potent sticks and carrots? It drives me crazy to think about the assumptions made regarding what really motivates people in so many management meetings. Too often, the unfounded and/or unchallenged conclusion is that “a lot of our people are lazy, unengaged, have poor attitudes, and need to get fixed.” The accommodating supporters (often HR pros) then go to work on some or all of the following: Tougher performance review systems and ratings (the stick) and/or improved performance compensation/praise systems (the carrot). Academics and thought leaders like Stanford’s Chip Heath have done interesting research on the built-in biases we have in assuming what motivates us versus others. We seem to be more inclined to describe ourselves as being driven by what Primed to Perform authors Doshi and McGregor define as direct motivators (purpose, learning, play, potential), while we assume most others are more motivated by indirect factors (pay, benefits, praise). Hence, the unbalanced focus or request for developing more potent sticks and carrots?

Key Point: While each of us are thankfully unique, it might serve us well to consider that most people are motivated much like we are. I know that the higher people rise in organizations, it is seductive to (consciously or unconsciously) think that we are somehow elevated from the “unwashed.” So, if we all ask ourselves, regardless of where we are by title or position, what really drives us individually, why would we assume others are motivated by something different? Hey, I do love making lots of money. It just doesn’t make my daily engine run fast. Over 40 years, as much time as my bosses and I spent getting my short and long term bonus criteria “just right,” I hardly ever thought about them after they were administratively completed. Yes, I wanted to get paid my bonuses and I’d be ticked off if they were ever less than 100 percent. Still, the money by itself did not drive me. The message here is that we need to invest more in the powerful motivators of being driven by purpose, learning, potential, play and the surrounding elements. This very much connects with the research in Dan Pink’s great book, Drive. The intrinsic factors Pink emphasizes are Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery. This is where I believe the work of operating leaders and the supporting cast needs to invest. Fancy or more potent sticks and carrots will satisfy our biases, but do little to create exceptional engagement and contribution.

Lead Yourself Move:

  1. Ask yourself what really turns you on? How much of that condition exists in your current situation? Determine what you can do to create more of what really fires you up.

Lead Others Moves:

  1. Whatever you do after reflecting on what you want to more fully motivate yourself, create the same conditions for others. How do you get them fired up over purpose and vision? How can you invest in their ongoing growth and potential? How can you provide them greater autonomy and opportunities for mastery? Let them play, experiment and have fun. 
  2. Make sure your stick and carrot systems are fair. You don’t want people leaving because they suck. Just don’t expect these factors to be your big performance drivers. 

Driven in Personal Leadership,


One Millennial View: One of the theories behind why big lotto winners have a disproportionate tendency to attract tragic outcomes is because, even with all the money in the world, it wasn’t earned. Drive, passion and purpose are replaced by guilt and lethargy, which leads to worse. In recent years, I’ve been lucky enough to hear a lot of successful people explain that completing tasks and contributing value with pride and enjoyment is also a great currency, even if it’s not on our bank statement. A good message for all Millennials.

– Garrett

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis