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Why it’s not enough to reward and punish employees

It’s the 21st century, so why are we still trying to motivate and engage our employees with a “carrot and stick approach”? Here’s why it’s not enough to reward and punish.

I enjoy taking my children to the circus every year. My youngest daughter, Portia, likes the show ponies. To get them to perform their impressive feats the trainer uses a light whip in one hand and a pocket full of treats in the other. Get a reward or receive a punishment: that’s how the trainer coaxes the ponies into correct behaviour.

It always makes me think: This isn’t far removed from the way we try to motivate human beings in the workplace. In fact, it’s far too close! Human beings are treated like circus animals in the main. The manager dangles carrots in front of employees in the form of extrinsic rewards, such as bonuses, and use sanctions to punish them when they step out of line.

The appeal is clear: reward and punishment is simple to understand, easy to monitor, and straightforward to administer.

Indeed, there’s a widely-held belief that satisfaction and performance go together and that the pathway to better job performance for many managers is through job satisfaction. This general belief has been around for at least 100 years, despite inconclusive evidence, and it has led to a range of performance management measures designed to satisfy people at work that are extrinsic rewards – usually money.

In the circus environment, reward and punishment seems to work well but does it work as well for the complex, highly educated employees of the 21st century?

There’s no doubting a satisfied employee is better off in lots of ways in comparison with a dissatisfied employee. But we need to challenge this deeply-rooted belief that extrinsic rewards bring the best out of people. Sometimes they get results but the carrot and stick approach isn’t always effective. For widespread and sustained performance, the two questions we need to ask are:

  1. How do we engage the heart and mind of the employee in their work?
  2. How can we make the connection between human spirit and work?

What should we replace the carrot and stick with?

The answer is under our nose. It’s work itself that has the greatest potential to improve (or reduce) personal productivity, apart from the peripheral recompenses for doing the work. Instead of relying on the carrot and stick, we should concentrate on motivating people with the type of work they do and how they do it.

One of the main criticisms to scientific management is that it dehumanises the worker. By separating the planning function from actual work accomplishment, workers needn’t bother to think – the thinking has already been done by management. This division of planning and doing – as logical as it indubitably seems – strips the worker of their autonomy and self-sufficiency. Mastery of work in these circumstances boils down to robotically and repetitiously following a series of processes or procedures. And work broken down into small, controllable segments, is often considered meaningless by those called upon to do it – namely, workers.

Dave and Wendy Ulrich in their book The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organisations That Win explain the significance of understanding how work contributes to a greater cause beyond simply completing a process. Although I’ve acknowledged that the nature of work has transformed from the days of the factory assembly line, performance management practices we use haven’t kept pace. Work is still fundamentally segmented, regimented, and tightly controlled. Work segmentation is still the prevailing performance management practice.

(Want to know why your organisation can’t fake meaningful work? Read our report.)

Dan Pink in his popular book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about Motivation, challenges us to think differently about human motivation and performance. Pink tells us that the carrot and stick approach isn’t always effective, especially for the new breed of knowledge worker. He claims we need to do more than satisfy the employee with a sprinkling of external rewards. And I think he’s right—as a growing number of authors do.

This is an extract from Dr Tim Baker’s latest book, Performance Management for Agile Organisations.

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