Opinion: there is a huge difference between the carrot and stick approaches when it comes to increasing our performance in the workplace

When asked, most people will say that their pay or salary is an important determinant of whether they are satisfied in their jobs and money is undoubtedly a significant driver of human behaviour. Despite this, money and incentives are not particularly good motivators.  Having a salary that one considers reasonable or fair is important and getting a fair day's pay for a fair day's work drives the extent to which we feel satisfied by our jobs.

Although commonly thought of as being one and the same thing, job satisfaction and work motivation are different. Job satisfaction refers to how favourably we look upon our job, but motivation is a driving force and is responsible for the direction and persistence of the work we do to meet our goals. The key difference between just being satisfied in our job and being motivated by our job is the idea of drive and persistence.

Does the proverbial carrot approach to motivating employees work?

One of the key questions we must ask then is whether compensation systems like incentives and pay-for-performance have the effect of increasing our drive, persistence and performance? Does the proverbial carrot approach to motivating employees work?

A second issue is whether forcing employees to engage in certain behaviours, through compliance or punishment for non-compliance, has the desired effect. Does the "stick" approach to motivating employees work? The answer to these questions can be best understood by thinking about different types of motivation.

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We can distinguish between two general types of work motivation. The first, autonomous motivation, is when we engage in work tasks because we enjoy them, find them interesting or because they meet an important value or goal. In contrast, controlled motivation involves doing a work task to obtain a reward or avoid a punishment.

When we work or engage in a work task only because we are paid for it or receive a bonus for doing so, we are working from a sense of controlled motivation. In some cases, incentives (carrots) can actually have the opposite effect and demotivate us rather than motivate us. The reason for this is that external rewards, like bonuses or pay-or-performance incentives, can sometimes decrease autonomous motivation. Getting paid a bonus for doing a work task decreases the sense of control or choice with regard to this task, and thus, can sometimes reduce the extent to which we enjoy it or feel that they are important to us in our work.

Controlled motivation can also encompass the perception that we will be reprimanded or punished for not doing something at work. Decades of research on motivation have shown us that punishment or reprimand (or even the threat of) are very poor ways to motivate certain types of behaviour. At best, individuals will only to continue to engage in a certain behaviour (whether it be a work task or something else), while the threat of punishment or reprimand exists. If that threat is removed, they will cease so the stick approach to motivation is a very poor one.

"In certain circumstances, this extra effort not only has an impact on performance, but can also have a negative impact on our well-being" Photo: iStock

Experiencing controlled motivation at work is very difficult. Even those of us who love our jobs will experience days when we don’t feel like working or have tasks that we really hate doing. Thus, motivational type only goes so far. It explains what motivates us, but doesn’t explain how we motivate ourselves.

Technically, how we motivate ourselves is referred to as volition and it explains why making ourselves do tasks that we don’t like or find boring tires us out more than doing tasks that we like or enjoy. When we do a part of our work that we enjoy, we don’t have to motivate ourselves to do it because we are autonomously motivated for that task. However, when have to do a task that we don’t enjoy or find boring, we have to expend energy both doing the task and getting ourselves to do the task. This is why controlled motivation is more effortful.

In certain circumstances, this extra effort not only has an impact on performance, but can also have a negative impact on our well-being. For example, taking initiative or being proactive is increasingly encouraged by organisations, especially in uncertain and rapidly change environments, and proactivity has many benefits for both employees and organisations.

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However, there is one circumstance when taking initiative has a negative effect on well-being for employees. This is when employees are motivated by a sense of pressure and coercion at work (they experience controlled motivation) without any sense of interest or identification with their work (i.e. low autonomous motivation). In such circumstances, employees experience higher levels of strain at work.

Is it worthwhile, then, for employers to ensure that their employees enjoy their work and find it meaningful?  Autonomous motivation is associated with both higher quality and quantity of performance, while the provision of an incentive by contrast only has an effect on performance quantity. Not only is controlled motivation associated with lower performance, but it also associated with lower well-being, organisational commitment and job satisfaction, while focusing on autonomous motivation will result in higher quality performance.

Research conducted in Canada suggests that there are also economic benefits for organisations to have autonomously motivated employees, demonstrating that for each dollar invested in training their staff in this type of motivation, they generated $3.19 in return. Thus, there are many reasons for both employees and organisational leaders to focus on designing jobs to enhance autonomous motivation and reduce controlled motivation. In sum, neither the carrot nor the stick should be involved in work motivation. Rather, we should strive to whistle a little more while we work.

"Whistle While You Work" from Snow White which basically describes autonomous motivation


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ