The Carrot or the Stick

Something I think about every day is how to get people motivated and keep them inspired. As the leader of a large sales organization, and as a parent of 2 children, this is a major focus in my daily life. Over my 30+ years in business, I have studied literally hundreds of resources on the subject of human motivation, and I want to share one critical distinction in this article here today.

I want to illuminate the difference between positive motivation and negative motivation, and why one is so much more compelling as a force than the other. One creates energy and inspiration, while the other produces fear and hesitation. One leads people towards long-term success, while the other keeps people just a step ahead of failure. One can ultimately lead people into developing intrinsic motivation, while the other leaves people often dissatisfied and more likely to be unhappy.

I hope I have your attention.

When I was 19 years old, I was introduced to Anthony Robbins, well before he had become the #1 public speaker in the world. In his first book, Unlimited Power, Robbins teaches something he calls “Metaprograms.” One example is “towards vs. away.” People can be motivated in 2 ways, either towards something they want or away from something they don’t want. One way is a reward or incentive (the carrot), the other way is a consequence or punishment (the stick).

Think about the energy you feel when there’s a positive reward out there for completing a task. This is quite different than the energy you feel in attempting to avoid a negative consequence. Having a target or goal is ASPIRATIONAL; it develops a feeling of WANT inside of us. It leads us to strive to become better so that we can achieve it, and it helps us achieve success in so much more than just the current goal or task. Striving to avoid a negative consequence is like a race to the “almost-bottom.” It creates a way of being of operating just one step ahead of failure, doing just enough to avoid the consequence, and settling for WAY LESS than we have the capacity of becoming or achieving in life.

As a leader or a parent, if you are regularly attempting to motivate someone by avoidance of pain, you are training that person to be mediocre.

Read that again because it’s a powerful statement. Through our leadership, the people we are developing are learning how to view the world. Do we want them to feel entitled to outstanding rewards just for staying one step ahead of failure? Or do we want them to aspire to become as great as they can become, thereby unlocking the virtually unlimited rewards that life has to offer?

If we truly want the latter, for our employees or for our children, we have got to learn to use the tools of positive motivation. This concept is backed up by hundreds of studies over the years in the fields of positive psychology and performance management. From the insights of Tony Robbins, to Denis Waitley’s brilliant work The Psychology of Human Motivation, to Barbara Fredrikson’s enlightening description of “the upward spiral that will change your life,” to the ground-breaking methodology of “Appreciative Inquiry” pioneered by David Cooperrider, all of the research describes an actual neurological change that occurs when people feel positive emotions as they are pursuing goals and completing tasks in their daily life. I, and many others, have learned to leverage these concepts to help engender high performance and long-term motivation, and anyone else can do the same.

The first simple step here is to learn to catch yourself in those moments when you are using negative motivation in some form. Instead of saying, “If you don’t do ABC, you won’t get XYZ,” flip that around. “If you’d like to earn XYZ, I’m asking you to do ABC.” (Envision yourself as the receiver of both of those statements, and just FEEL how it feels inside your body). The second statement eliminates any feeling of entitlement to the reward. If we make our employees (or our children) feel they are “losing” something by not complying with our requests, they start developing this feeling of entitlement. And when they do comply, they are merely getting what they were already entitled to, so they’re never satisfied. Through this process, we are sapping people’s energy and decreasing their long-term motivation. By flipping that idea around, we are encouraging people to EARN their rewards, and we are inciting them to ASPIRE to do what we are suggesting. We are creating positive energy in the short-term and sowing the seeds for intrinsic motivation in the longer-term.

Stop telling others what you DON’T want them to do, and instead learn to direct people’s focus towards what you DO want them to do.

BOTH the carrot and the stick are EXTRINSIC. Now, I might consider one to be a bad form of extrinsic motivation and the other to be a better form of extrinsic motivation, but they are both extrinsic. By all means, the stick IS necessary to implement at certain times. But it is usually best implemented as a punishment after something has already happened, NOT as a deterrent that you verbalize to try to inspire some opposite positive action. In looking forward, the carrot is more effective in getting others to aspire to goals or targets you would like them to achieve. Desire-based motivation simply works better than fear-based motivation, virtually every time.

But the real secret to long-term success for anyone is developing INTRINSIC motivation. While the stick serves little purpose beyond providing a consequence for bad behavior or unacceptable results, the carrot can at least move people along in the process in the short-term. The next step after this is to eventually eliminate the need for external rewards all together. By recognizing not only the achievement of goals and targets, but also the small steps in the right direction, leaders can begin to cause people to have a greater enjoyment of what they are doing. And when people enjoy their work, they will become more and more motivated to do the job well. What develops here is a feeling that the greatest reward of a job well-done is simply to have done it.


  • Provide encouragement to others to achieve goals, reach targets, or engage in the behaviors that you want to see. Keep work fun and inspiring.
  • Avoid verbalizing concepts centered around what you don’t want.

The mind can’t dwell on the reverse of an idea.” Dr. Maxwell Maltz

  • Notice and recognize the positive steps that people make in the direction of their targets.
  • Celebrate success, as often as you can. Small wins, added up, become major victories, both in business and in life.
  • Create a culture where learning and self-improvement becomes the central piece of achieving long-term success. If you can help develop lifelong learners, they will succeed at almost anything!

Put this all together, and you have the makings of long-term, sustained intrinsic motivation, both for your workforce and for your family.


What do you think of this article?  Please feel free to share your comments below.

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