Put Down The Carrot, Step Away From The Stick


I like carrots.

When they’re in my salad they provide a rich source of antioxidants, and when they’re in my business they provide a great incentive to keep our sales teams motivated.

Or do they?

In the early days of my sales career I experienced the ultimate carrot. At the end of the year, anyone who achieved their quota earned time in “the money machine.” The higher your achievement, the more time you had inside.

And when I say money machine, it’s exactly (or not at all?) what you’re imagining: a phone booth filled with money — bills varying from $1 to $100. When you step inside air is blown into the machine making the bills fly around like a tornado.

The goal? Grab as many bills as you can before your time is up.

Now that’s a carrot.

I’ve also experienced the ultimate stick.

In my early days as an executive recruiter, we were called into a company meeting following several quarters of the business being down and motivation being at an all- time low. Effective immediately, anyone who failed to hit all of their monthly KPIs would only get paid 75% of their monthly salary. Miss consecutive months and you were gone.

“Wait, they can’t do that, can they?” I remember all of us asking.

Oh they can. And they did.

So, the million dollar question: which worked better, the carrot or the stick?

Both provided a short-lived bump in activity but were completely unsustainable. Their impact on motivation tapered off within weeks.

Over the long term the problem with training your sales team to work for the carrot is that you have to continue increasing the size of the carrot in order to maintain its effect. Economist from Micro Agility Anton Suvorov shares that, “Rewards are addictive in that once offered, a contingent reward makes an agent expect it whenever a similar task is faced, which in turn compels that principle to use rewards over and over again.”

Over the long term the problem with the stick is that it’s rooted in fear, and in the end leaves a devastating scar on the culture and atmosphere of an organization, creating a moat of distrust and negativity between the leaders and the front line sales team that is difficult to restore.

There’s always a place for punishment in the workplace if the sales rep breaks company policy but as an ongoing means of motivation it just doesn’t work.

So if neither the carrot nor the stick provide any positive long term impact, what’s a sales org to do?

The good news is that the scientists who have been studying motivation have given us the solution. And it has to do with looking at motivation from the inside out.

In so many aspects of life we’ve been trained to focus on the external, when it’s usually the internal that holds the key.

Motivation, it turns out, is no different.

It turns out that the secret to driving sustainable high performance is not rewards and punishments, but an unseen intrinsic drive– the drive to do things for their own sake. The drive to do things because they matter.

World-renowned motivation expert Simon Sinek calls this “starting with why.” Why do you do what you do? Answer that question and you’ll find your motivation.

Thought-leader Daniel Pink’s research comes to a similar conclusion as he presents the three (3) pillars of intrinsic motivation that science has shown to make the most impact over time — pillars that every sales org today should revolve around:

Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives.

Mastery: the desire to get better and better at something that matters.

Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

So what can you do to turn your motivation strategy inside out? You can start by hiring and leading with intrinsic motivation.

Hire for intrinsic motivation

Hire for candidates who are intrinsically motivated to do the job. Be wary of candidates who are only extrinsically motivated.

It’s fine to have a combination of the two, but if the only motivation you’re hearing in an interview is extrinsic then that person is eventually going to be unmotivated, and it’s going to come sooner than later.

You should be able to figure out pretty quickly if they can do the job. Spend the rest of your time figuring out why they want to do the job.

Lead with intrinsic motivation

Daniel Pink has laid out a great framework to start thinking about as a leader: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Autonomy: practice and preach freedom. Tell your sales team that they’re autonomous, and then let them be autonomous.

As an extreme example, the “Results Only Work Environment (ROWE)” is a concept that’s in place at a dozen companies around North America and in a ROWE people don’t have schedules.

They show up when they want. They just have to get their work done. How they do it, when they do it, where they do it, is totally up to them. Meetings in these kinds of environments are optional.

What happens? Almost across the board, productivity goes up, worker engagement goes up, worker satisfaction goes up, turnover goes down.

Mastery: do whatever you can to ensure your team members are continuously learning new things. Give them new projects, let them lead team meetings. Coach them and let them see that they’re growing, learning, improving.

As an Executive Recruiter I interviewed more than 3000+ candidates and I can’t tell you how many times the unmotivated ones shared that “they just weren’t learning anymore.”

Making sure that doesn’t happen is on them, yes, but it’s also on you. Especially if you want to retain top talent.

Purpose: this is the hardest one, and the most critical. This is the WHY. As a leader you have to help your team members find their why. You have to help them see how what they do on a day-to-day basis connects to the overall mission and vision of the organization.

As soon as they struggle to make that connection their WHY is lost and their motivation suffers.

Silence can be a great facilitator to finding purpose. Make it easy for your team to have pockets of silence.

Now go forth and conquer. Let this year be the year you turn your business inside out.


By Ryan Paugh

Hi there!

With decades spent exploring the outer world and the inner world, I share some of the insights I have learned along the way.

Topics include mindfulness, spirituality, growth, perspective, and career.

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