Which Motivates More: A Carrot or a Stick?

October 30, 2023

Donkey and carrot which motivates more: a carrot or a stick?

The origins of the saying are unclear.

It starts with a donkey being guided by a carrot strung in front of him, just out of reach.

The desire for the carrot will get that donkey to move forward.

Carrot which motivates more: a carrot or a stick?

If it doesn’t, the owner may hit the donkey from behind with a stick, which can also have the effect of making him move forward.

Which is more effective, the carrot or the stick?

In modern-day usage, the carrot and the stick is a metaphor for office work or politics.

If an organization has a “carrot and stick approach,” it offers things to persuade people to do something (the carrot) or punishes them (the stick) if they don’t.

What type of “carrots” have you been persuaded to chase?

Consider these rewards dangled in front of you:

  • A promotion
  • A raise
  • A title change, a prime opportunity, a bonus, or a corner office…

Have they been effective rewards? Have you been able to grasp upon one of those carrots and take a big bite or is it continually dangled farther away to keep you moving?

And what type of “sticks” have you seen used as motivational tools?

  • A poor mid-year or final review
  • A performance improvement plan
  • Harsh criticism or public rebuking
  • The feeling you can be replaced at any time in a culture of fear

Do any of these sound familiar? Have they motivated you to invest more time and effort into your role? Or have they made you want to chart a different course?

I think both are flawed approaches.

We are not donkeys.

Donkey which motivates more: a carrot or a stick?

Do not assume this will work. (You know what happens when you “assume”…. you make an ASS out of U and ME).

Eventually, you lose the taste for carrots if they’re never obtainable. Or maybe when you finally get a bite of one, you realize it doesn’t taste as good as you thought it would.

And sticks? Sticks hurt. A painful wallop to your psyche might motivate you momentarily but ultimately you may decide your energy is best spent finding a role elsewhere instead of trying to prove yourself in an organization that doesn’t care about the pain it inflicts.

As I wrote recently, the one thing employees need most is to understand the value they provide to their organization and to feel valued for doing so.

Everything else is just sticks and carrots.


Valerie gordon your story matters web which motivates more: a carrot or a stick?
Valerie Gordon is an award-winning television producer, communications and leadership consultant, and the founder of The Storytelling Strategist. She speaks at conferences, offering keynotes and breakout workshops, and partners with corporations to build strong leaders and collaborative teams.

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