Discipline – Beyond Carrots and Sticks

Eric StutzmanLeadership0 Comments

bored people in meeting

Many organizations have done a lot of work in recent years to understand what truly motivates people at work. In that process, we have been moving away from a “carrots and sticks” philosophy to one that is much more nuanced and based in behavioural science. “Carrots” are essentially simple rewards like cash bonuses, while “sticks” are punishments that cause pain. Many organizations have redesigned employee engagement programs and even approaches to compensation. However, I believe we have often missed rethinking and redesigning the half the equation that involves “sticks.” We now know that using “carrots” doesn’t work for motivating performance on tasks that require thinking and reasoning, but has it sunk in that “sticks” also don’t work for motivating long-term performance or specifically changing behaviour?

So, here are two big ideas for you to update your discipline processes:

1. Use Intrinsic Motivation for Discipline

Here’s what social scientists tell us: In the long run complex human behaviour isn’t driven by sticks and carrots, but we keep doing discipline as though it were! From a motivation perspective, we know that pay is only a small part of what motivates someone to perform. The larger part of motivation, as Daniel Pink puts it so well, comes from giving people autonomy, helping them achieve mastery, and connecting behaviour to a greater purpose.
If we think about discipline using the same framework we should see some very obvious things. First, a “stick,” or punishment, has only short term corrective results. A threat of punishment (which is essentially the administration of pain through penalty) may get someone to stop their behaviour in the short term, but it doesn’t get at the things that really drive behaviour over the long run.

If we want long-term behavioural change we have to stop relying on motivation driven from the outside, and start tapping into intrinsic motivation.

2. Connect Discipline to Values

Discipline processes should be connected to someone’s failure to behave in ways that are consistent with the values we hold as an organization. In essence, we are doing discipline in the hopes of helping people realize our values. Think about that – discipline is about helping people live out values. When we are helping someone, our approach should be to come alongside and work with them, rather than doing something to them.

If we want someone to change their behaviour, we need first to understand their behaviour. All Behaviour Has Meaning. People do things because those things make sense to them, because they connect to one of their intrinsic motivators such as their personal values.

If we want a behaviour to change, we need to figure out the meaning of the behaviour by asking that person about what motivates their choices. If the meaning of someone’s behaviour is incongruent with what we want in terms of the way we live our organization’s values, then we have two options:

  1. We point out the mismatch in lived values and problem solve with them about what to do; or,
  1. We accept the difference and decide if we want to keep the current relationship or change it.

When we approach discipline by focusing on values and working with someone to create change based on their own intrinsic motivators, we communicate respect, compassion, and courage. While this may be difficult, it ultimately shapes people and teams in positive ways that strengthen relationships and loyalty to our organizations.

ACHIEVE is conducting a study for a book we are working on and we would love to hear your input.

This book will draw heavily on “A Great Place to Work” Survey. 

Eric Stutzman, Managing Director,
ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance

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