New Study Shows “Carrot and Stick” Motivation Isn’t Much Better than “Not Interested”

Carrot and stick motivational schemes may drive short term compliance, but they don’t work very well when it comes to increasing long term performance, retention, effort, endorsement, or even intentions to be a good organizational citizen. That’s what researchers at The Ken Blanchard Companies found when they looked at the impact different motivational outlooks have on employee intentions.

The 950-person study looked at the correlations between three different motivational outlooks—Disinterested, Suboptimal, and Optimal—and five subsequent intentions to act in a positive manner—apply discretionary effort, perform at a high level, endorse the organization, remain with the organization, and be a good organizational citizen.

Correlations Between Motivational Outlooks and Work Intentions

As expected, people who identified their motivational outlook as Disinterested showed no measurable correlation to exhibit the five desirable behaviors. However, the research showed that people with a carrot and stick (gain reward or avoid punishment) motivational outlook, labeled Suboptimal by the researchers, also showed no measurable correlation back to positive intentions.

Only people who identified their motivational outlook as Optimal—participating in a project or task because they were able to link participation to a significant value, life, or work purpose—showed a strong correlation.

Implications for Leaders

For managers—especially those using rewards and sanctions as performance management tools—this new data requires a rethinking of the best way to go about encouraging long term high performance. For best results, the Blanchard researchers suggest six ways managers can build stronger links to positive intentions.

  • Encourage autonomy—by inviting choice and exploring options within boundaries
  • Deepen relatedness—by sharing information about yourself and the organization, showing empathy and caring, and discussing your intentions openly
  • Develop competence—by emphasizing learning goals and not just performance goals and by providing training and appropriate leadership style matching a person’s level of development
  • Promote mindfulness—by encouraging self-reflection and asking open-ended questions that identify options
  • Align with values—by helping individuals align goals to their identified values and by exploring natural interest and enthusiasm for a goal
  • Connect to purpose—by providing rationale and big picture overviews to help individuals connect the goal to a work or life-related purpose

The research cautions leaders that taking motivational short cuts may spur action short term, but may do more harm than good long term. Instead, take the time to connect and align work goals in a way that builds autonomy, relatedness, and competence. You can learn more about the research—including source materials and additional tips for leaders, by downloading the 12-page white paper, A Business Case for Optimal Motivation.


6 thoughts on “New Study Shows “Carrot and Stick” Motivation Isn’t Much Better than “Not Interested”

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