When the Stick Has no Carrot

It’s time we got real about the Carrot and the Stick.

All the management books tell us about “motivation”, as though it’s a transitive verb, as though it’s something I can “do” to you – or you to me. The only thing worse is “incentivization”, the idea that we can predicate the vision and dedication of a whole group of people solely on the basis of stuff we give them – in the face of all the evidence from the entirety of human history.

The truth is that the “carrot” is not evident for many American workers, and if we include the whole of the world’s population, then the notion of the “carrot” has hardly any reality at all – unless we’re talking about a real carrot, that is, which is more than many people get to eat in a day. Millions of people work hard at jobs with no prospects, no promotion, no salary bump, no fancy benefits – and yet they clock on and clock off, day after day, and many still care about the quality of the work they do.


Beyond all the hoopla about “motivating” people and putting a juicy carrot on the stick to keep them going, there seems to be an innate human desire to work. In fact, it’s known that the single best thing you can do for your mental health is to have a job, any job – to be employed. It’s not a subject that is often discussed, and most of us fantasize about how terrific it would be if we didn’t have to work. Yet the people who really don’t work also don’t tend to do well psychologically, and poverty is only part of the reason. Work engages the deep part of ourselves that is programmed to live in tribes.

Some people work without a carrot simply to keep their families. For others, it’s about dreams of the future. For others still, it’s a sense of affection for those we work with, or service to country, or favors owed, or a laundry list of other good reasons that require no carrot. Others labor angrily in chains forged from prejudice or lack of opportunity, but where there’s anger, there’s always hope. If you’re a leader, that’s worth remembering.

And if you look at the real reasons people work even when the stick has no carrot, if you scan across the reasons of family, duty, service, the American dream, tribe, a place where we feel we belong, a substitute for opportunity unfairly denied, it all comes back to one thing, if we’re honest.

It could only be love.

John Kolm


Team Results USA

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