I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.” In this article I start to question the predominant ethos of reward based Motivation and start to explore the idea that “If you use carrots and sticks, you’ll end up with donkeys.”



On the surface it makes complete sense that if you reward behaviours that you want more of - for instance working hard, achieving results, being polite - then a person will do more of that behaviour because they want the reward.

And it follows that if you punish a behaviour you want less of - being late, swearing, doing incomplete work, for example - then you will get less of of it, because people don’t like being punished.

After all, that’s how parents, teachers and employers, and society as a whole, try to promote the behaviours they want and avoid the ones they don't - so it must be true, mustn't it?


It starts with parents saying “If you ......, then I’ll .......”, moves on to gold stars for getting answers right at school, and ultimately lies at the heart of virtually every incentive based work payment system.

This “If ....., Then .......” approach to motivation is everywhere

It’s even reflected in the way we’re taught to motivate ourselves to high achievement - by setting goals and rewarding ourselves when we achieve them.

This combination of carrots and sticks gets the results you want - whether you’re trying to motivate yourself or other people. (Or so it seems.)

And the vast majority of the time, at least in adulthood, the incentive or punishment is financial.

  • If I want my salespeople to sell more, then I need to give them a financial incentive to do it. If I want them to be the best, I need to give them even more.
  • If I want to recruit the best then I need to pay them a bigger bonus than my competitors.
  • If I want them to be creative then giving them a reward will result in them coming up with more and better ideas.
  • If I want my team to win then I must pay them a bonus for winning.
  • If I want people to arrive at work on time, I should penalise them for being late.
  • If I want my customer service team to be polite and treat customers well, then I should take something away for every complaint of rudeness.
  • If I want my business to be successful then I should reward myself every time I achieve one of my goals.

Simple isn’t it? And it all makes complete logical sense. (Apparently.)


There’s only one problem:

Motivation doesn’t actually work the way that this model assumes.

Once you realise that, the carrot and stick approach makes no sense at all.


The carrot and stick model starts from the premise that Motivation requires some kind of external force to be applied to someone to get them to do something - I’ve forgotten how many times business people have said to me “What do I need to do to motivate my staff?” or “I need to do something to make myself more motivated.”

In the carrot and stick model, Motivation is something that is done to us - and the easiest way to set up an “automatic” motivation system is to create one that drip feeds rewards whenever a desired behaviour occurs.

It requires an external reward because it assumes that Motivation is an extrinsic quality - something that is not part of the essential nature of the person. It assumes that without the rewards we will all sit around like complete slobs and do nothing.


But Motivation is not extrinsic, it is not something that has to be done to us.

Motivation is an intrinsic quality - it exists naturally and completely within us. It is in an essential part of who we are and, when tapped into, requires no external reward at all.

David Beckham did not spend hour upon hour as a child, and as an adult, honing his football skills because he received an external reward every time his practice free kick hit the back of the net. As he says “[Being a footballer] was the only thing I ever wanted to do.”, and his one time manager, Alex Ferguson, describes how Beckham “practised with a discipline to achieve an accuracy that other players wouldn't care about."

Yes, he is the world's highest paid footballer, but that “discipline” that Ferguson refers to was not because of the rewards. In fact, if one looks at a lot of other top rank footballers, it seems that Beckham’s dedication and commitment is in spite of the rewards, rather than because of them.


And we all come fitted with that natural intrinsic motivation as a standard part at birth.

You only have to watch pre-school children engaging with their surroundings to see that fact demonstrated. However, even before their child has learned to speak, many parents have started to undermine their intrinsic motivation and train them towards external rewards. For example, an apparently innocuous phrase like “If you give Daddy a smile, then he’ll give you a cuddle” can contain the seeds of an extrinsic attitude for life.

And that’s just the start.......


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