The Carrot and the Stick0
By Frank J. Rich
A life’s journey has a way of imprinting experience. The learned application of its lessons often requires the reflection that cements the meaning in things, and the motivation to employ it. The oft spoken “carrot and stick,” as a motivator, is root to more initiatives than first imagined.
I’ve spent time with horses, the fabled partner in the eponymous expression, whose natural and acquired behavior reveals the design in the idiom. Any that have animals around—dogs, cats, chicken, and livestock—know well the habitual tracking in each that gives insight to human behavior. In the end, we may not be far from instinct in most things we do.
In the workplace, increased productivity is the “striving for” that fuels opportunity and growth for employees. Coupled with profits, the model is a successful blueprint of a simple business ethic. In postwar Europe, the productivity wane was the result of a fading value in productive endeavors. As “The Daily Advertiser” reported in 1948, the economic difficulties facing the continent were the malaise of a workforce easily employed, but less given to productive outcomes. “Productivity has fallen because the compelling incentive to produce has disappeared,” it concluded. Not entirely the fault of plentiful jobs and social service schemes, the era’s worker found little partnership with motivation. There simply was not enough value in it.
The idea in the “carrot and stick” approach was to offer a combination of rewards and punishment to induce good behavior. Its original context named a cart driver dangling a carrot in front of a mule and holding a stick behind it. The mule followed the reward (the carrot), while avoiding the stick behind it, since it feared the punishment of pain, thus moving the cart forward. We may liken it to the psychology of income tax payment. We fear the IRS, but are motivated to deliver a timely tax return each year to put the fear of an audit behind us. It is perhaps why so many overpay their taxes and set up a reward (refund) at tax time.
Bonus incentives are a takeoff on the original model. Promised, but less often realized, the bonus spurs individuals to greater performance (theoretically). It ceases to work when bonus goals are viewed as unrealistic or seldom met by work teams. The punishment is the termination of those who fail to meet goals.
Much of what we do involves a similar effort at motivation. We might excite good behavior in our children with the promise of ice cream, use of the family car to a teenager in return for good grades, a tasty treat for Fido for performing a nifty trick, etc. The root motivator in us all is the self-actualization that fashions rewards—pride in achievement, joy in making another happy by what we do, the thrill in risk taking, etc.
While fear is not a successful long-term motivator, it is in the tissue of most, if not the driving force in the things we do. Fear of failure complicates more lives than the wisdom that “man doesn’t make mistakes, mistakes make the man.” That notwithstanding, most are hard-pressed to employ the discipline that proves results. Few become “expert” at something for the unwillingness to put in the “practice that makes perfect.” How many more start piano lessons than actually develop the everyday skill to enjoy playing the instrument? “Of course, I took piano lessons as a child, didn’t everyone?”