A new variety of carrot?

Mar 02 2012 by Bob Selden Print This Article

When discussing motivation, the metaphor of the carrot and the stick appears to have been with us for a long time. It's been suggested that the carrot and stick approach was first used by peasant owners of donkeys in order to keep their animals moving. Whenever the animal stopped, the owner used to dangle a raw carrot in front of the animal's nose (on the end of a stick). If the stubborn animal still refused to move, then guess what happened? The owner hit it with the stick!

Other suggestions for the origin of this metaphor purport that there was no punishment involved Ė the stick was merely used as a means of dangling the carrot at a reasonable distance in front of the donkey. So, the carrot was used purely as a "motivator".

Whatever the actual origins of the metaphor, recent news article headlines indicate that the metaphor of carrots as motivators is still alive and well, for example:

  • "The Right Carrot: Is Your Compensation Plan Keeping Your Sales Force Motivated?"
  • "Dangle the Right Carrot to Entice Workers"
  • "Offering the Right Sized Carrot"
  • "Rewards and Praise: The Poisoned Carrot"
  • "Carrot Danglers"
  • "Sarkozy Referendum Pledge Ė A Carrot for Disgruntled Voters"
  • "A $400 Million Carrot for Sears"

Now, whether you adopt the carrot approach, getting people to do what you want them to do by rewarding them with something valuable they want, or punishing them if they fail to do what you want (perhaps reducing or taking away what is valuable to them), it doesn't appear to work for all of the people all of the time.

Ever since the 1960s theorists and academicians have considered the carrot/stick dichotomy a "hygiene factor" in employee motivation, a term referencing Hertzberg's two factor theory of motivation, published in his 1959 book, "Motivation to Work". Readers will know that along with pay (more or less carrot and stick), Hertzberg proposed the other two hygiene factors to be working conditions and supervision (i.e. fair and equitable management).

Hertzberg believed that while the hygiene factors did not motivate people, taking them away or reducing them, greatly reduced an employee's satisfaction for work and ultimately the organisation. He proposed that in addition to maintaining a sufficient level of hygiene for employees, there were other factors that needed to be in place to truly motivate them.

His "motivating factors" (in today's terminology, the things that help deliver "employee engagement") were achievement, recognition for achievement, responsibility, meaningful interesting work, and the opportunity for growth and advancement.

As a trainer and management educator, I've long been a strong proponent of Hertzberg's model of motivation. However, at times I've struggled to convince hard-nosed business people that "money does not motivate people". After all, common sense suggests that if you offer someone something that is valuable to them, they're likely to do it for you. Reduce or take away this incentive and they are less likely to perform for you.

Now, a new study (yes, here's another one on the topic), the 2011/2012 Kenexa High Performance Institute WorkTrends has thrown up some exciting evidence that seems to support both Hertzberg's theory and the good common sense theory.

The study shows that for production, warehouse or clerical workers making less than $40,000 a year, pay is positively related to employee engagement and their intention to stay with the organisation. Whilst the study shows this relationship is modest, it is indeed significant.

However, as income rises for professional and technical workers and management, the relationship diminishes. In other words, pay matters more to those making less, and for those in management, no relationship exists.

If you thought that result was interesting, here's the real kicker. Whilst for production, warehouse and clerical workers, income and intention to stay are modestly related, a belief in opportunities for career advancement is highly related to deciding to stay with an organisation.

So it would seem that whether in management, professional, clerical or production jobs, if individuals can see a future for themselves at the organisation, they are more likely to stay. These findings really help to clarify Hertzberg's original model and show how we as managers can use this in a practical way to keep people both satisfied and motivated.

But Kenexa adds an important criterion to the original model:

"According to the two-factor theory, hygiene factors do not add to motivation, they can only negatively affect satisfaction if they do not reach a certain threshold. In the case of line workers' income, it is likely that this threshold is the point at which the individual is living comfortably. Higher paid employees may set the threshold at a higher cost of living, or perceptions of fairness as they compare themselves to their peers.

Regardless of income level, after income reaches this threshold, it can only serve as a de-motivator; if income is taken away or perceived as unfair, employees will tip the scale by underperforming, which manifests in behaviors such as not meeting goals, taking more sick days or leaving the job."

For some, these findings may not be surprising. However as the report points out:

"Consider the amount of money spent on retention and performance bonuses, golden parachutes and salary increases for the very group who consider money as noticeably less relevant when deciding to leave a job. Granted, individual circumstances may vary, but in general, offering larger raises and bonuses to higher income groups is unlikely to raise this group's retention rates."

As a two-factor motivation supporter, I've often wondered why employer/employee negotiations are always based around pay, working conditions and supervision. Why don't the workers ask for more of the motivators? This report now helps me understand why.

The message for managers and organisations?

As we always have, we need to still focus on ensuring both the motivators and satisfiers are maintained and indeed enhanced. Now there's a new challenge. How to we package reward, recognition and remuneration so that it meets the needs of people at all levels of the organisation? For me, this is indeed an exciting challenge. We may need a new variety of carrot!

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden, is an author, management consultant and coach based in New Zealand and working internationally. Much of his time currently is spent working with family businesses. He's the author of the best-selling What To Do When You Become The Boss. His new book, What To Do When Leadership Is Needed, was released in July 2022.