Stick or Carrot

How do you motivate your employees?

By Lana Straub

I take taekwondo from a Korean Grandmaster. One of his many wise sayings is we must continually find ways to keep ourselves motivated, for without motivation, we go back to our old lazy ways.

Sometimes that seems like a daunting task when dealing with employees.

Motivation is described in the Merriam Webster dictionary as “A motivating force, stimulus, or influence.” It’s also known as the force and drive that makes someone do something they might otherwise not want to do.

So how do we get our employees to move forward on company goals? Are there ways to help them understand the significance of the company goals and help us move toward them?

The 2017 Gallup study, State of the American Workplace, examined employee engagement to find out what is important to most employees when deciding whether to remain at their current job or move to a new one.

The study revealed “Employees don’t expect to be offered every benefit and perk out there, but a handful of programs or amenities are important to them. In some cases, these are attractive enough to make employees consider a job switch.”

What causes employees to become demotivated at work?

The Gallup study found three major causes of employee motivational decline. Unfortunately, all of these stem from company management—or the lack thereof. Causes recognized in the study are:

  • Unclear and misaligned expectations: A total of 40% polled stated they don’t know what’s expected of them at work
  • Ineffective and infrequent feedback: Only 23% of those polled felt they were receiving effective and frequent feedback from their employers
  • Unfair evaluation practices and misplaced accountability: Only 21% of employees polled felt that their performance evaluation contained items within their control. Most felt they don’t know what they are supposed to do or how to it.

Punishment or Reward?

Depending upon your business’ philosophy, you might use either the stick method or the carrot method. Most of you are familiar, but this goes back to the days when the only way farmers could get their donkeys to move was by either offering them rewards (the carrot), or offering punishment, (the stick).

Unfortunately, since employees are not pack animals, most will agree that the stick method rarely works, not to mention if your sticks are used incorrectly, they might land you in the midst of a nice little lawsuit. Of course, the ultimate stick might be termination of employment, but rewards—or carrots—are generally what employees are offered in the form of pay and perks.

But are there other ways to motivate employees to actively contribute to the bottom line of your business?

Turning Carrots Into Salad

The new theory in management that seems to be gaining ground is performance-oriented management, or helping the employee align their goals with the goals of the business.

Basically, this is turning the carrot theory into more of a salad, as it gives the employees a variety of ways to improve themselves and become better people and better members of the team.

For example, instead of offering a one-month membership to a gym as an incentive to motivate employees to become more active, you might build an entire wellness program including information about the importance of avoiding sitting for long periods of time, cessation of smoking, and the important elements of a good diet.

The keys to this type of motivational strategy is three-fold:

  1. Make a plan establishing goals and objectives
  2. Coach the employee through feedback and adjust their performance as they go
  3. Document the employee’s progress for your records and theirs.

Perhaps your employee has organizational issues. Instead of purchasing a new planner and expecting them to write down every second of their day, you instead set some organizational goals for them, coach them by providing educational guidance through a video program, and check in on them from time to time to find out how the system is working. You might also send them to a day-long organizational class.

The key, of course, is constant feedback and documentation so you know how well the performance motivation is working. This is particularly important during times of promotion and salary increases.

Variety of Carrots

The main carrot employee’s love to eat is a pay raise. However, there are many types of perks you can offer as employee motivation that are more meaningful and longer lasting than a few pennies or dollars an hour.

Team Building

There are many ways you can build team comradery. Celebrations are a wonderful way to show employees you think of them as a valuable part of your organization. We print a banner for each of the employee’s birthdays and display it by the timeclock. This shows the employees their special day is important. We also celebrate during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays by giving employees hams and turkeys as well as bringing treats to the office during the seasons.

Another way to team build is to celebrate the achievements of your employees. When they complete a competency test do you share that achievement with the rest of the group? When clients tell you an employee went above and beyond on a project, do you share that with the rest of the team? We have found that by posting these achievements on the company bulletin board, it helps the honored employee feel appreciated but also motivates others to set goals and achieve more as well.

Give Employees a Voice

Employees spend a majority of their day at your place of business. And whether they’re working at a family-owned mom and pop or a big company, they want to feel they have a voice in their day.

How can you give them that voice? Suggestion boxes are regaining popularity in the workplace and so are employee feedback meetings. Keep an open-door policy and let employees know your company is always striving for improvement. It is up to management and employees to work together to create a harmonious work environment.

Share the Meal

Instead of using the stick or carrot methods to motivate your employees, the Gallup study suggests you share the meal with your employees with coaching as the ultimate method of keeping your employees motivated.

It states, “Leaders can develop their managers as coaches by teaching them to establish expectations, continually coach, create accountability.”

When employees come to work for your company they don’t know what is expected beyond a job description, some of which are not much bigger than a tweet. Help your employees get to know your company from the start. Make sure you are establishing the expectations of their job performance, coaching them on how to best achieve them, and creating accountability, whether sticks or carrots.

Perhaps the key takeaway from the Gallup study is to remember this: The benefits and perks that employees truly care about are those that offer them greater flexibility, autonomy, and the ability to lead a better life.

Lana Straub, with a background in the legal and financial aspects of small business, is the office manager of Straub Corp., Stanton, Texas, an environmental and water well drilling firm owned and operated by her family for 60 years. She can be reached at