Carrot or Stick: Which management style is right for your workplace

23 September 2020 Debbie Morrison

management styles with business pen and paper

The western world has been drifting generally towards the left for some decades. In such an environment you might imagine the argument about carrot or stick management styles would be something of a no contest. Yet closer inspection across a range of businesses, workplaces and industries suggests otherwise. Whether you’re naturally inclined to manage by fear or by reward, many good HR judges believe too much of either can be a bad thing for business, with success often resting in how well you’re able to balance the two to suit the specific make-up of your workforce.


The Carrot

There’s no question positive reinforcement can be a powerful talent management tool; give your team something to really aspire towards and watch them go for it! Of course, while the theory makes considerable sense, it’s important to understand this ‘good cop’ approach doesn’t always work out, and it certainly comes with a unique set of pitfalls and limitations.

One of the biggest problems managers come up against, typically stems from situations where the reward mechanisms – be they related to money, promotion or other workplace or lifestyle incentives – are considered unclear, unfair or unattainable, thus undermining the very behaviours they were intended to inspire. Instead of being motivated, employees can quickly become the exact opposite – demotivated and disgruntled at a perception of hollow promises from management. What does this mean? Simply that for any form of reward-based employee incentive to be successful, the onus is on managers to ensure crystal clear clarity, genuine transparency and perceived fairness for all of those involved.

Ironically, some organisations find themselves suffering from the exact opposite problem. In situations where the carrots are felt to be easily attainable, there’s evidence it can a lead to complacency within the organisation or, worse, a sense of entitlement. Both situations can be counterproductive, so it’s important for your HR incentives to be generous enough – but not too generous. It’s a fine line.

The Stick

Virtually everyone has experienced a ‘bad cop’ or two during their careers, that person whose style is to manage through fear and the ever-present threat, be it spoken or implied, of repercussion. While certainly there’s little question fear and punishment can be powerful motivators, it’s a management style fraught with many dangers – especially in the modern era defined by high rates of employee mobility (not to mention legal action against employers). Hit someone with the metaphorical stick too many times, or without a genuine reason, and they’ll probably just leave you for a competitor. This isn't to suggest employees should be free of consequences for unacceptable behaviour or performance. Rather, it’s an approach that needs to be managed very carefully, or you may end up with an even bigger HR problem on your hands.

Generally speaking, the stick approach is best applied as a short-term team management tool to drive realistic stretch targets or changes in behaviour. It’s also worth remembering that if it’s being used as a punishment for undesirable or unacceptable workplace behaviours, the stick is almost always most effective when used at the time the behaviour has actually occurred. Act too late and the benefits may be negligible, if anything.

So, where does this leave us? Like most things in life, there’s a place for both the carrot and the stick in a modern workplace management strategy. In different situations both are proven to be effective in driving positive results and/or changes. Their application is an ongoing balancing act that some managers and HR departments are far more adept at than others. The good news is with a little focus and awareness of the issues at play, virtually all managers can improve the way they use them.

(If you’re interested in learning more about the psychology behind carrot and stick management styles, there’s a great feature about the work of Douglas McGregor, a social psychologist and professor at MIT in the USA. Read it here).

ContactELR Executive for information on how we can assist your business.