Carrot and Stick Motivation Approach in the Workplace
Carrot and Stick Motivation Approach in the Workplace

Carrot and Stick Motivation Approach in the Workplace

In the workplace, having a good understanding of motivation is essential.

Motivation is the dedication and willingness of employees to work hard and take pride in what they do, shown for example by meeting deadlines on time. High employee motivation leads to a good company culture.

If you’re an employer, much of your time will be spent trying to motivate your team to do great work and boost their productivity. There are various ways to get the most out of your staff; the carrot and stick motivational approach covered in this article is one of them.

What Is the Carrot and Stick Motivation Approach?

The carrot and stick motivation approach uses both rewards and punishments to get better results from the people you are working with.

  • The carrot acts as a reward – offered for good behaviour
  • The stick is a punishment – applied as a consequence of poor behaviour

The ‘carrot and stick’ term can be traced back to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham and comes from an old story where two methods are used to motivate a donkey to walk.

One where it is offered a dangling carrot to move forward versus another instance in which a stick jabs and pokes the donkey to get it going.

In the modern corporate world, this analogy of the carrot and stick is used to offer employees a reward and consequence system that acts as concrete feedback for their behaviour.

For example, financial incentives for strong performance can be given to staff – and concurrently, penalties applied for lack of achievement.

How to Use the Carrot and Stick Motivation Approach

To make the carrot and stick policy actionable you need a clear goal for your employees, with both positive and negative consequences.

These consequences need to be impactful and the goal has to be specific with a time-frame and a measurable output.

For example, imagine if your goal was to get orders from at least 10 new clients every week. A carrot for your sales staff would be to receive a business perk, such as an upgraded laptop. A stick for those same sales staff might be a reduced commission on the sales made that week.

To make sure the carrot and stick approach works, you need to be sure that the incentives and penalties are powerful enough to get people to change up their behaviour. If they are not, the motivation to increase their performance will be weak.

If you begin with smaller, more attainable goals, this will set a good tone for the future and allow for plenty of uplifting feedback. This will help develop a culture wherein positive change feels possible.

Remember your aim is to modify your staff’s behaviour positively; you should be in a situation where you are using more carrots than sticks.

It’s also worth remembering that there will be individual differences in your employees' reactions to the concepts of carrots and sticks. Some people respond strongly to incentives and will work hard for them, while others are more psychologically motivated by loss or by scarcity.

If you are managing several people, it is wise to adjust your motivational policies accordingly and learn what works for each of your staff members.

Consider whether a carrot and stick approach must be applied in a blanket way across the company or if a personalised feedback system will be more rewarding to your team members.

For example, you could have a set of incentives for your sales staff whom you know like to strive toward goals. In contrast, you might perhaps have a set of strong penalties for dangerous behaviour in the warehouse (because you know from experience that this is more effective than rewards for these particular staff members).

However, if the warehouse team discovers the sales team have these potential rewards, the warehouse team may feel maligned. While the people in the warehouse team may be better motivated by sticks, you should also include some carrots to offset the development of resentment for the sales staff receiving special treatment.

Examples of Carrots and Sticks In the Workplace

You can get creative in your use of carrots (incentives). Here are some ideas:

Carrots: Pay and Benefits

Some obvious ones are related to compensation (extra pay or commission) and benefits (parking spaces or access to other perks like more leisure time).

Carrots: Recognition and Praise

Some companies use recognition tactics as carrots – for example, an employee-of-the-month photo display in reception.

Receiving praise publically, or even privately, can be very motivating for many people.

Carrots: Awards and Gifts

You can also show your appreciation for work well done by giving out awards or gifts to your employees.

It helps to match the reward to the task it is given for – if, for example, you are rewarding a team working well together, it makes sense to create an incentive that works as a group celebration for them: perhaps an away day at a spa.

Make sure that the carrots you are using as motivational tools also fit your company tone and culture – and keep them varied to hold interest.

One year you might have a party for all the highest earners and another year you might give out company-branded umbrellas or book weekend trips for the top performers.


For effective examples of sticks (penalties), it would be wise to look to more established company practices. If there aren’t many, and you have to create new ones, check them through with your HR departments before implementation.

This is important because there can be nuances between companies and industries.

In some working cultures, a public dressing down would be inappropriate, but in others, like construction, that might be the best motivation to avoid future mishaps.

Typically, some basic examples of punishments might be:

  • Having to work an unfavourable shift or cleaning up after other people; they are penalties that most employees would want to avoid.
  • Reducing access to extra benefits; for example, removing permission to work from home.
  • Adding responsibilities to underperforming staff; like having to assist with inventory.
  • Reduction or removal of commission

However, if you are using a stick against underperforming staff, you should also check whether blocks are stopping them from performing at their best.

Consider the work environment or whether there have been external stressors going on in that employee’s life.

Loading more responsibilities onto someone who already isn’t coping may result in them collapsing and doing no work at all.

Carrot and Stick Motivation Approach in the Workplace: Definition and Examples
Carrot and Stick Motivation Approach in the Workplace: Definition and Examples

Does The Carrot and Stick Motivational Approach Work?

The carrot and stick approach has good benefits, especially in the short term; employees may respond well to the clear rules and boundaries in this way of operating.

Nevertheless, some dangers to using the carrot and stick policy exist, especially if you have staff with strong personalities who rebel against its use and might feel manipulated.

The carrot and stick policy sometimes puts more emphasis on near-term thinking, at the expense of long-term gain.

For example, if sales staff spend all their time getting new clients to reach their weekly goal of orders – focusing on a promised reward for doing so – they may then forget to nurture their ongoing relationships with established clients, thereby damaging the company’s reputation in the longer-term.

Another drawback is that the carrot and stick approach is an example of extrinsic motivation – that means the drive to get things done is not coming from inside the individual.

For this reason, it’s rarely sustainable without the employer’s input – once the carrot or stick is taken away, motivation to keep up the desired behaviour wanes.

If you want to create a culture of intrinsic motivation – where people work without constant prodding or feedback – then you need to focus on your employees and their growth rather than external carrots and sticks.

This is expanded upon in the next section.

If your employees become more intrinsically motivated, that will also save you time and money – not having to maintain potentially expensive carrots and unwieldy sticks. After all, one of the problems of having external rewards is that your employees may even begin to expect perks and bonuses on top of their regular salary – so you want to be sure you’re not building false long-term expectations for them.

Some staff can get demotivated if they feel like rewards and penalties are not distributed equally throughout the company; for example, the sales teams who bring in the big clients can often get hefty commissions – which usually aren’t shared out with the administration. This might create frustration or a lack of unity and togetherness in the company, perhaps leading to further problems down the road.

There can be another issue with performance-based pay as it has been linked to a mix of mental health outcomes.

The psychological effect of pay levels is complicated – too low and the employee doesn’t feel valued, but too high can also lead to burnout, ego-inflation or imposter-syndrome (feeling that you don't belong in your role despite your skills and achievements).

If staff start using short-cuts out of a sense of entitlement or try to ‘game’ the system to get rewards, then your carrot and stick approach has failed. You need to watch out for unethical behaviour and think about whether your management policies are appropriate for the current context if this happens.

Alternatives to the Carrot and Stick Motivational Approach

In the past, the carrot and stick policy was more effective because tasks at work were often routine and straightforward. Today, however, people’s careers are more varied, the environment is less controlled and there are challenging elements like increasing stress to take account of.

These days, more lateral thinking, self-directed learning and creativity are required in workplaces. If you believe that a carrot and stick approach is a bit too basic for your business and you don’t like the idea of building a culture around materialism and trading fear for performance, then there are other approaches you can go for instead.

Harness Your Staff’s Passions

One way to do this is to consider what drives each person and build upon this foundation, whether it be respect, status, recognition, work-life balance or any other factor.

For many people feeling like a meaningful part of the whole can be a strong motivator.

Each individual will have their own subjective values and experiences that impact their intrinsic motivation; for one person it could be autonomy or feeling valued that increases their efforts, for another it could be more self-respect and satisfaction at a job done well.

Offer Training and Coaching

If you want to continue to motivate an employee intrinsically, you can offer them extra training or coaching that helps them develop a strong development plan.

This personalised approach can hone their particular motivational mindset and create an environment that fosters wellbeing alongside productivity.

Look at Your Management Style

Team morale is often set by managers, so take responsibility and demonstrate your own personal growth and how it links to overall company performance; you should always act with integrity and be a role model for your team.

As things progress, acknowledge the extra efforts your employees go to, listen to them carefully and appeal consciously to your team’s intrinsic motivators.

Allow for Innovation

Allow your staff more control and agency to try new things, whether that’s learning through online courses or even giving them an opportunity to introduce a new company service; these will go a long way towards making them feel more motivated and heard.

Giving your employees a chance to prove themselves in a new way, or letting them suggest ways to improve company processes, is a motivational technique that can be initiated by managers during a performance review or an annual away-day.

In some companies this could even be started at the interview process before a job offer is made; great managers ask these types of growth questions early on, to help them understand a future employee’s mindset and how best to motivate them.

Final Thoughts

The carrot and stick approach can be applied to many managerial situations; it works best in simplistic scenarios where there are clear boundaries and a quick turnaround.

Incentivizing people to work hard by giving them rewards – and signalling them away from mistakes that would penalize them – makes intuitive sense, though it isn’t the only way to motivate.

While the carrot and stick motivational approach can be powerful in the short term, it is hard to sustain without lots of managerial effort. For this reason, it’s helpful to explore other more intrinsic motivational techniques that connect with people’s enjoyment of their daily work.

There is no single, definitive way to motivate everybody, so a good manager takes the time to get to know their people and where possible, delivers a personalised approach for each of their staff members.

Using motivational techniques like harnessing the passion of your employees, helping them feel valued and giving them opportunities for growth are intrinsic – and thus more valuable for the long term success of your business.

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