12:45pm 07/02/2024
Carrot vs stick: What actually motivates employees?
By:Professor Dr. Zafir Khan

Carrots are suitably referred as the reward that is able to enhance one’s motivation to push oneself further.

The individual will continue to make the effort to achieve the target intended to reap the promised reward.

The stick refers to the punishment imposed on people who are not able to achieve the performance intended, and it pushes them to change and obey the rules.

In the organizational contexts, the determination whether to give a carrot or stick in addressing motivation issues must be planned carefully.

The organization’s hope to change and increase the employees’ motivation will not be achieved if they are not ready, or they understand why the giving of carrot (reward) or stick (punishment) is carried out.

Organization managers today prefer to impose punishment if the target is not achieved, hoping that the punishment will make the employees change and become motivated.

This kind of managers assume that the negative approach is more effective to change one’s attitude than the milder, softer approach.

There are several issues and effects that can be taken from this carrot-and-stick. The first issue is, which approach must an organization take to ensure that all employees are motivated in achieving the intended target, carrot or stick?

Secondly, should an organization start with listing down the rewards or incentives ti be given if the target is achieved or is better than expected?

If it is done, there will be employees who will strive to achieve the tasks to get the reward.

The third issue is, should an organization first introduce the list of punishments imposed if the target is not fulfilled?

In effect, the punishments imposed might force the employees to achieve the target, but they will not improve their motivation.

The last issue is, are the punishments or rewards introduced necessary to see changes in the employees’ motivation?

I am of the opinion that if employees are clear with their respective roles and responsibilities, and are in line with the organization’s direction, all the issues above will not surface.

Be it a reward or punishment, the employees will continue to be motivated to achieve the respective targets.

The issue here is the ambiguity of role, the environmental factor and individual aim that often coincide with the organization are the reasons why it is hard to achieve the targets and why employees’ motivation deteriorates.

In brief, the issues mentioned above require an organization to understand the employees’ situation and their level of acceptance towards the targeted tasks.

This understanding needs to take into account all internal and external factors that also support the intended target.

Through the managers, organizations need to understand and follow through the nature of motivation to enable it to plan for the next course of action.

Research shows that motivation is one of the internal processes that can spur and motivate one’s behavior or interest to achieve a goal or aim.

The motivation process begins when an individual knows or realizes about unfulfilled needs.

Upon this realization, he or she will set the goal and it will influence the actions that need to be done.

These unfulfilled needs are crucial to be explored to ensure the role and responsibility of every employee, be it responsibility of the organization towards the employees or employees’ responsibility towards the organization.

Based on this concept, it can serve as a guidance on the method of raising employees’ awareness and increasing their motivation.

Raising the needs that have yet to be achieved or fulfilled, might raise the employees’ awareness to change and move towards achieving the goal.

This approach is more effective compared to proposing negative punishments that will intimidate the employees more and finally will affect their emotions and level of health.

In reality, it is not easy to motivate employees these days. Changes in the economy, society, politics and technology are a challenge to managers in motivating their employees.

Diverse workforce in today’s organizations also adds to the managers’ challenges in motivating their employees.

Differences in gender, religion, race, culture and education backgrounds in the organization show that employees’ requirements might be different, so are the aspects that motivate them.

Thus, managers need to understand individual differences in the organization, and form a motivational strategy that is more effective.

Studies show that money is no longer the primary source of motivation. There are also other factors that need to be given due attention in addressing motivation issues in the organization.

Factors such as training and development, work environment and employee-manager relationships are more appropriate to motivate employees these days.

All these factors can be categorized as intrinsic motivation which can have long-lasting impact on the organization.

Carrot and stick are both effective in their own ways and they give different connotations to every individual.

However, based on my experience and study findings, if one begins on a positive note, the outcome will be positive and permeate into the entire organization.

In turn, if it is the negative element, the anticipated outcome will finally be achieved. However, it should be remembered that the achievement of goals through punishments will create a sense of force and the fear that might not last long.

In time, the sense of fear will disappear and the employees will return to their normal self.

Thus, the choice is in the hands of the managers and organizational leaders.

In my opinion, what is to be emphasized is that appreciation in the form of a piece of paper and not in the form of financial reward needs to be carried on in the effort to acknowledge more employees and their credible performances.

Naturally, this positive aura will spread and seep into the souls of the employees and will yield the anticipated outcome.

(Professor Dr. Zafir Khan bin Mohamed Makhbul is Dean, UKM-Graduate School of Business, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.)


Professor Dr. Zafir Khan


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