Think Inc.
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Sunday, November 2, 2003




The carrot vs. the stick

Motivating employees to do their best is always one of a manager's most significant challenges. This is particularly the case when your competitive advantage in a rapidly changing marketplace is based on a highly committed creative workforce.

It wouldn't take a rocket scientist (or even an expensive consultant!) to know immediately what's wrong with a picture from a Hagar the Horrible cartoon. One of Hagar's 'employees' is beating a mule's behind with a carrot while a stick hangs a few feet in front of the animal's nose. However, it is equally unclear that simply reversing the positions of carrot and the stick will really get the willingly offered heart-felt commitment needed to stay ahead of the competition versus the oft times begrudgingly offered minimal compliance that, at best, will keep your organization from falling far behind the competition.

Any manager at all familiar with modern theories of motivation knows this fact. Certain carrots -- things like fair wages, meaningful benefits, and safe working conditions -- will serve very well to satisfy needs that social scientists like Herzberg called hygiene factors. [Maslow referred to these as needs for food, safety, and security.] These same carrots, however, will do virtually nothing to activate the highest order needs for achievement and self-actualization upon which all striving for individual excellence -- itself a necessary prerequisite of organizational excellence -- is based.

So given the above, what can be done to tap into and direct the needs for achievement and self-actualization that many social scientists believe lie dormant within everyone of us? The first factor of importance is to recognize that lower order needs are activated by extrinsic factors while higher order needs are activate by intrinsic factors. In other words, you do not 'motivate someone' to be self-actualizing. You do not literally grow a plant. Rather, you plant the seeds, nurture the soil, keep noxious weeds from choking it, and feed and water it.

You do the same thing with employees. You begin with the belief that they inherently need to achieve -- to do the very best work of which they are capable -- because they need to actualize their fullest selves. Then you do everything you can to act from that belief in how you deal with them. You actively involve them in setting challenging but achievable goals. You provide timely balanced feedback. You encourage risk taking and inculcate an attitude of learning from mistakes, not looking for scapegoats or people to blame. And, perhaps, the most difficult thing you can do is to sincerely invite and welcome any feedback they have for you as to how you can potentially change your own behavior to be the best 'gardener' -- the best grower of talented employees you can be.

In other words, you make use of the known power of the self-fulfilling prophecy, wherein our beliefs are a major determinant of outcomes. Think about it. The effects of this phenomenon are unavoidable. So what can you really lose by treating your employees as if they did in fact -- and they do -- have a wide range of needs, from food to self-actualization.

When it comes to fully motivating your employees, it is not an either or, but rather a yes and. In other words, man may not work to his full potential for carrots alone, but neither will he work very well without them.

Irwin Rubin is a Honolulu-based author and president of Temenos Inc., which specializes in executive leadership development and behavioral coaching, communication skill building training, and large system culture change. His column appears twice a month in the Honolulu Star Bulletin. Send questions and column suggestions to or visit

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