Monday, August 17, 2009

The power of ‘carrot and stick’

It seems rather ‘regressive’ for someone who calls himself an ‘Organization Development Professional’ to write a post on ‘the power of carrot and stick’. Haven’t we transcended the ‘carrot and stick’ method of motivating employees a long time ago (at least after Frederick Herzberg came up with the ‘two-factor'/'motivation - hygiene’ theory almost 50 years ago)?

The objective of this post is not to recommend or to praise the ‘carrot and stick method’. It is just to examine the actual situation in this domain (in terms of both theory and practice) and to explore the possible reasons for the 'power of carrot and stick'. We will also look at possible responses to this situation - from both the employee's and the employer's points of view.

While today's organizations are unlikely to talk about the 'carrot and stick method', if we analyze the methods that are actually being used by organizations to 'motivate' their employees, we are likely to find a high amount of ‘carrot and stick’ element in them. Of course, the ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ have become more sophisticated. But, in time of ‘organization stress’ (e.g. the recent economic downturn) some of this sophistication often disappears and more crude forms of ‘carrot and stick’ (that were thought to have become extinct) reappear!

Let us come back to Herzberg. Technically speaking, the ‘two factor’ theory of Herzberg is primarily about ‘satisfaction and dissatisfaction’ – and not exactly about motivation (as job satisfaction might not necessarily lead to motivation or productivity). So it seems possible that the ‘carrot and stick’ method of 'motivation' might be very much alive – both ‘in theory' (more about this later in this post) and ‘in practice'.

Now, let us examine why the 'carrot and stick method' works so well. I think that the power of ‘carrot and stick’ emanates mainly from the fact that it takes advantage of two of the most basic human emotions -‘desire’ and ‘fear’. To be more explicit, ‘carrot’ scores a direct hit on ‘desire’ and ‘stick’ does the same on ‘fear’. It can be argued that if we use the terms ‘desire’ and ‘fear’ in a broad sense, most of the human emotions (and hence most of the human behavior and motivation!) can be ‘modeled’ in terms of these two (and the human responses to them).

If we push the above argument a little further, it can be deduced that the so called ‘content theories’ of motivation (especially those that talk about fulfillment of ‘needs’ – e.g. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, ERG theory, McClelland’s theory of needs etc.) can’t distance themselves too much from ‘desire’ element (and hence from ‘carrot and stick’). Similarly, if we take a close look at some of the ‘process theories’ of motivation (e.g. Expectancy theory) we might be able to detect elements of ‘carrot and stick' in them also (e.g. especially in the 'valance' part of the 'expectancy - instrumentality - valance' chain/of the cognitive process that leads to motivation, as per the Expectancy theory).

If we consider motivation as a 'state of mind' (i.e. something that happens in the mind of a person), 'carrot and stick' (or anything external to that person, like what the manager/ employer does) can't directly cause motivation to occur - it can only create a situation where motivation is likely to be 'triggered'. Again, the method for applying carrots and/or sticks for maximum effectiveness (especially if we take the sustainability of the effectiveness account), can become quite complex. There have been quite a few studies on the effectiveness of various types of positive and/or negative reinforcement strategies to elicit desired responses. So the 'power' of 'carrot and stick' does not imply that the application (of 'carrot and stick') is always easy!

Now, let us look at this situation from the other side – from the point of view of the employee who is at the ‘receiving end’ of these motivation strategies. From the above discussion, it can be seen that if an employee wants to be immune from the power of ‘carrot and stick’, he/she should develop immunity from ‘desire and fear’ – at least those types of desires and fears that can be leveraged/manipulated by the employer. Easier said than done – I must admit - for most of the 'real' people in 'real' organizations! By the way, in the novel 'Siddartha' by Hermann Hesse, there is a beautiful description of how this method of motivation (implemented through an incentive scheme - with a significant upside and downside for the employee) attempted by an employer (Kamaswami, the rich merchant) fails to have any impact on an employee (Siddartha) who had transcended 'desire and fear' ("Siddartha can think, Siddartha can wait, Siddartha can fast"). It is also interesting to note that this novel was first published in 1922 - much before 'HRD' (in the current sense of the term) came into existence.

My point is not that most of the human beings are nothing more than bundles of ‘desires and fears’. We are capable of other emotions (like love, sense of pride, sense of duty, quest for purpose/meaning etc.) that might go beyond ‘fear and desire’. So it should be possible to find ways of motivation based on these 'higher' emotions. However, these higher emotions might not be very easy to ‘manipulate’ in an organization setting. Please see 'Passion for work and anasakti' for a more detailed discussion on this.

Now, let me tell you a little bit about incident that triggered the thought process that resulted in this post. One of my friends asked me to comment on an article which argued that ‘Leaders should inspire people as opposed to motivating them’. When I thought about this, I felt that the situation was a bit more complex than what it appeared to be – when we look at what really happens in many organizations. Most of the organizations have an essentially top-down goal setting/goal cascade process. While individuals might have some degree of freedom to shape their roles/deliverables, individual goals must add up to the corporate goals. Also, organizations usually hire people to do a particular job (which might even have a formal job description that details the job responsibilities). These factors can lead to a situation where a large part of what needs to be done by a particular employee has been 'fixed'/‘mandated’ or even 'imposed'. If what you need to do is fixed, then whether the leader ‘inspires you’ or ‘motivates you’ to get the same thing done can become essentially a matter of semantics!

I also feel that ‘inspiring someone’ (creating a situation where someone might become inspired- to be precise) is a more unpredictable process (in terms of outcomes) as compared to 'motivating someone' (to do a particular task – say through carefully applied positive and/or negative reinforcement - including the promise/threat of applying/withdrawing positive and negative reinforcement or ‘carrots and sticks’ !). No, I am not endorsing the 'morality' of these 'motivation' techniques. I am just saying that they are possible. I must also mention that there could be situations where these techniques might fail. For example, it is easy to create 'incentives' (financial and non financial) for someone to write a book. But, whether this can result in a 'great book' (if the author is not really inspired to write the book) is debatable. However, the fact still remains that 'inspiration' is often a complex (and elusive!) phenomenon.

While, your manager can 'inspire' you, what you will end up doing based on (triggered by) that inspiration can’t always be predicted accurately. So, if the objective is to get you to do a particular task, I am not sure if the pure inspiration route will always work. Any attempt to make the inspiration more controlled, will bring in the element of manipulation that this inspiration approach is trying to avoid. Of course, if we are talking about a community with no predefined goals (as opposed to organizations that usually have predefined/ mandated goals) then this inspiration approach might work – though no one can predict what will exactly will the outcome be (at the individual and at the community level – considering ‘interaction effects’ and ‘emergence’)!!

Well, it can be seen that the post that I ended up writing (based on the above trigger) went much beyond a response to the immediate ‘provocation’. May be I was inspired (as opposed to just being motivated)!!!

Now, over to you for your comments!

Note 1: It might be possible to make a distinction between actions that we take because of some sort of compulsion and those we take because we really want to do so (e.g. between compliance and commitment). The problem here is that compulsion does not necessarily mean coercion (at least not in the usual meaning of the term 'coercion') - any sort of 'inducement' can also imply compulsion. In a way, all we can observe is the action and the reason behind the action is some thing that we infer - especially in the case of other people. Even if we are talking about our own actions and the reasons for those actions there is the problem of rationalization (e.g. we can attribute the 'good' actions to intrinsic motivation and the 'not so good' actions to external compulsions). Hence the distinction between the two types of actions can get blurred.

Note 2: In this post, the term 'desire' has been used in a broad sense. This makes it easy to link 'needs' and 'carrots' to this term. But it can also be argued that if we use broad definitions for fear and desire, even the 'higher order' emotions mentioned above (like love, sense of pride/ duty/ purpose/ meaning etc.) can be mapped to/'reduced to' (at least, in the 'factor analysis' sense) the core emotions of fear and desire. To deal with this, we need to define these terms (terms like desire, fear, love, sense of purpose and of course the terms action/ motion/ movement, motivation, and inspiration) more precisely and in a manner that has internally consistency/ coherence (at least 'arbitrary coherence' -as Dan Ariely says in his book 'Predictably Irrational') . But that involves too much work (may be even a lifetime of work!) which is beyond the scope of this post.

Note 3: Now, that I have mentioned the name of Dan Ariely, I must also say that I am fascinated by the work that behavioral economists (like Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler & Dan Ariely) have done in exploring the domain of human motivation and decision-making - and the predictable irrationalities in the same. Their studies have also shown that 'relational rewards' work better than 'monetary rewards' in many circumstances, though relational rewards have the disadvantage of raising relational expectations. Please note that this does not negate the 'power of carrot and stick' . We can always say that while relational rewards ('relational carrots') and different from 'monetary/transactional rewards' ('transactional carrots') - they are still 'carrots' - carrots that appeal to higher order needs (say in Maslow's hierarchy of needs). Again, it has been suggested that monetary incentives work best in the case of simple tasks (tasks involving straight forward physical or mental activity; i.e. tasks that don't require creativity) where higher performance is just a matter of trying harder and where the performance can be measured accurately. This also need not necessarily create problems for the 'power of carrot and stick theory' as this is more about the relative effectiveness of carrots. We must also note that there is an intense debate going in between 'rational choice economists' and 'behavioral economists' - regarding the applicability of the findings from behavioral economics experiments. It has been argued that we are quite rational in most circumstances (i.e. in our natural habitat/ in familiar situations) and these predictable irrationalities surface mainly in in unfamiliar circumstances and that the conditions created in some of the behavioral economics experiments are quite unnatural (i.e. not representative of the conditions faced by most people most of time in the real world). Even the very definition of rationality is open to debate (e.g. rationality can be defined narrowly - just as a consistent system of preferences/consistent response to incentives - even if these preferences might not be 'good' for the decision maker - as judged by the society)!

Note 4: It can be argued that all the leadership/management actions involve influencing and hence some element of manipulation (as it involves getting a person to do something that he/she would not have done otherwise). Now, whether this manipulation is for a ‘good’ cause (and for whose ‘good’) will bring us close to the domain of ethics (and the tricky terrains of situational ethics vs. code ethics, individual good vs. collective good, good of one collective vs. good of another collective etc.). For example, if my manager gives me some information that opens my mind (e.g. by enabling me to see some possibilities that I was not able to see before), I might get inspired (and do something that I might not have done otherwise). But if my manger gives me the additional information selectively, so that I will see only those new possibilities that he/she wants me to see (e.g. so that I will take some particular action) then the element of manipulation creeps in. Yes, the line between 'management and manipulation' or that between 'influencing and manipulation' can be a very fuzzy one!