Duck Tales

How to motivate staff without carrots

The problem with carrots

Why using rewards to motivate staff is a bad idea and what to do instead.

You’re probably familiar with the old ‘carrot and stick’ idea that uses rewards or punishment to motivate staff and improve productivity. Two things repel me when I hear this. Firstly, it underestimates the intrinsic motivation of your employees and the culture of respect you are no doubt striving to create. Secondly, I do not like carrots.

I cannot understand why, in today’s world, we are still working with such an outdated ideology. Especially when decades of research show that it doesn’t work. Whatever the rationale is for using this approach, it is laden with incorrect assumptions.

Assumption 1: Unwelcome behaviour is a problem management needs to solve.

When it comes to unwelcome behaviour, we need to completely change our perspective. Instead of viewing it as an obstacle we need to overcome, we need to approach it as an opportunity for growth.  

What would you do if you were managing a racing car driver that was yet to win a race? Would you tell the driver that they must go faster and cut corners otherwise they will continue to lose races and be dropped from the team? Or would you ask the driver how they could push the car a bit more so they can safely overtake the car in front and win? Which do you think would get a better result? Removing the reward/punishment approach opens up a whole new world of possibilities and ultimate success.

Assumption 2: Motivation must be provided by management.

The ‘carrot and stick’ methodology is founded on the idea that management is responsible for employee motivation. This may have worked well in the industrial revolution when tasks were more routine, unchallenged and highly monitored. Today, jobs are more complex requiring problem-solving, lateral thinking and self-drive. As a result, the source of our motivation has shifted. Instead of being influenced by external factors (extrinsic), motivation increasingly arises from the individual (intrinsic).  

I do not believe that the majority of people lack drive or commitment. I believe that too often their passion and drive remains untapped by outdated management styles. And that the right approach can drive almost anyone to succeed.

Think about what you are most enthusiastic about in your own life. There will be motivation and purpose behind it. You may not even count the hours or effort involved because you are so passionate about the purpose. Your values effortlessly  align and the outcomes provide a real sense of accomplishment. Now imagine if, as a manager or business owner, you could unlock that level of self-motivation in your team. Imagine how remarkable the outcomes would be.

Assumption 3: Rectifying factors that demotivate will in turn, motivate.

People assume that what demotivates us is somehow intrinsically linked to what motivates us. They think that if they could only tackle the demotivation factors, their employees will somehow become more motivated. This is not necessarily the case.

Consider an employee who is demotivated due to an uncomfortable work environment or perceived lack of pay. Fix these elements and the employee may still not be enticed to perform better. Their perception could just be that a ‘wrong’ has been righted. There is no motivation to change their own behaviours.

At school, there was only one way to learn English. It did not motivate me because my dyslexia went unnoticed and it made lessons difficult. I remember my school report stating that I, “could do better” and was “disruptive”. The message and outcomes were simple – if I did not improve I would be sent to the back of the class or held back a year. What is wrong with this scenario?

Firstly, the school failed to identify what the underlying obstacle was. Secondly, the carrot did not register with me. I don’t like carrots. No one had taken the time to remove my barriers to success or tap into my intrinsic motivation. I had no motivation to be good at English, it was not something I was passionate about.

How do you effectively unblock motivation?

If you want an employee to be more motivated, you need to help them realise what that entails. Here are three key things I’ve learned to unlock motivation.

  1. Do not simply reach out and ask why someone lacks interest. Apathy may just be the outcome, not the root problem.
  2. Analyse the things that are holding them back. What roadblocks are appearing? What would the journey look like if the roadblocks were removed?
  3. Get a clear picture of what uniquely drives/motivates them. What are they passionate about? How have past experiences led to the present? How can you bring back their passion today?

When leaders realise they have unmotivated staff, rarely do they acknowledge how they might be contributing to their lack of motivation. To be truly motivated, an individual needs a leader who will be complementary, interconnected and interdependent.

How many times have you ‘inherited’ someone with a motivational blockage that has been left unattended by your predecessor? At the same time you may have witnessed the instant change that can come from having a new, better aligned leader.

By taking the time to understand the motivations of individuals, you’re able to create a culture of productivity, accountability, creativity and strategic alignment. A culture that gets results.  

Once you understand what motivates people, you no longer need a carrot or a stick. Instead the people around you will be driven by their intrinsic will and passion.

Is there still a place for rewards?

Rewards may still have their place providing they are linked to an individual’s personal drivers (e.g. saving for a holiday). It must be something that matters to them, not something that a leader perceives will matter based on their own motivational drivers.

Many organisations only offer carrots but one size does not fit all. You need a whole fruit basket. We cannot expect workers to conform to one way of doing things. We cannot ask them to conform to one type of reward without the inherent risk of demotivating some of them. The additional cost of administrating a fruit bowl will be minor in comparison to the lost productivity. There are many paths we can take to complete the journey and reach the same ideal destination.

Regardless of whether it’s apples, carrots, pears or pomegranates, understanding what motivates individuals and acting accordingly will help you get more favourable results. Now is the time to try something different. Here’s how you can start:

  • Turn unwelcome behaviour into an opportunity to learn what really motivates people.
  • Support individuals to discover their intrinsic motivators.
  • Recognise that fixing what demotivates is not the answer to motivation.
  • Unblock motivation by asking the right questions.
  • Balance an individual’s motivators with those of the leader.
  • Offer a fruit bowl of rewards if beneficial.
  • Recognise that we can reach the same destination via different paths and journeys.

Need some expert assistance motivating your team? My senior leadership coaching may be the answer. Through group and individual sessions, I will align your team’s intrinsic values and motivations with your strategic goals and desired client outcomes. Book a call to discuss how we can energise and motivate your team.

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about Gordon

As an executive coach, speaker and international author, Gordon helps entrepreneurs and professionals break through their plateaus and accelerate their personal and professional growth.

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