Beyond Carrots & Sticks – A New Look at Discipline

Eric Stutzman

leadership, incentive, management, workplace culture, motivation

The ways in which leaders do or do not deal with problem behaviors have lasting impacts on their workplace cultures. Leaders must learn to respond quickly and thoughtfully to problem behaviors as they arise. When they do this well, they convey a spirit of care and accountability to the rest of the team and reinforce healthy workplace culture.

Unfortunately, even in healthy organizations, negative behaviors will emerge. To address these problems, some organizations still rely on a “carrot and stick” philosophy, even though this approach is antiquated and ineffective.

“Carrots,” such as cash bonuses and other incentives, don’t effectively encourage positive behavior change just as “sticks,” or punishments, don’t effectively prevent problem behaviors.

What Actually Encourages Performance

Behavioral science shows us that a paycheck, a “carrot,” is only a small part of what encourages employees to perform. As Daniel H. Pink explains in his book Drive, the larger part of motivation is brought about by giving people autonomy, helping them achieve mastery, and connecting their behavior to a greater purpose. Pink writes: “Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives.”

“Carrots,” such as cash bonuses and other incentives, don’t effectively encourage positive behavior change.

Why “Sticks” Don’t Work

When we think about discipline using the same framework we use to think about rewards, we are able to see some obvious flaws in its ability to change behavior. First, a “stick” has only short-term corrective results. The threat of punishment may get someone to stop their behavior in the short term, but it doesn’t get at the things that drive behavior over the long run. When the threat of a “stick” is removed, or when someone thinks they can get away with certain behaviors, they will often revert to the behavior that made sense to them in the first place.

True Discipline is Based in Strong Relationship

True discipline is not about punishment, but about teaching or showing a different way of doing things. The foundational root of the word “discipline” is “to disciple” – which means that the role of discipline is to show someone a better way of acting. If we are going to disciple or discipline people, we need relationships characterized by trust and respect.

For an organization, the purpose of discipline is to get people to behave in ways that are consistent with the organization’s values. When it’s done well, discipline can have long-term positive effects. When it’s done poorly, discipline creates additional problems, and unwanted behavior will likely reappear.


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Authors: Randy Grieser, Eric Stutzman, Wendy Loewen, and Michael Labun.

This blog is an excerpt from ACHIEVE’s book, The Culture Question: How to Create a Workplace Where People Like to Work.

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