New report in the Harvard Business Review suggests an answer

Every good business leader knows the key to their company’s productivity is an engaged workforce, highly motivated to achieve its goals.  In management circles there has always been an age-old debate as to whether the carrot or the stick strategy is the most effective in motivating employees to act.  In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, interesting new research may provide an answer.

Incentivising is now a well-established part of many companies HR strategy.  In the early days the main rewards for outstanding performance were bonuses and promotion. Nowadays there are a wide range of incentive tools available to employers including integrated rewards programmes, incentives trips and peer group recognition platforms.

Conversely the fear of negative feedback, public humiliation or worse a demotion can also act as a powerful motivator to alter behaviour.  The answer as to which of these strategies creates the most impact lies in how the brain’s limbic system influences our behaviour.  The limbic system is the part of the brain that controls our emotions and motivations.

An interesting study in a hospital in New York set out to establish the effect of a rewards based strategy versus a fear based strategy.  In hospitals it is vital that staff wash their hands before entering a patient’s room to minimise the risk of spreading disease.  The existing strategy used in the hospital was to raise awareness amongst medical staff through training and information signs about the risks of spreading infection if they don’t wash their hands.  Despite the many warnings CCTV footage revealed that only about 10% staff were actually complying with the rules.

Researchers then made a simple intervention which played on a positive strategy of rewards.  Every time someone washed their hands they were given immediate positive feedback via a signboard displaying a message such as ‘Good job’.  Over a period of four weeks the staff compliance rose from 10% to 90% by this simple change.

In his research at the department of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, Professor Tali Sharot has compiled compelling evidence from this and other studies to highlight an interesting ‘go/no go’ effect that governs our ability to take action under positive and negative stimuli.

In summary, his work demonstrates that people are more likely to be motivated to take action with the anticipation of pleasurable rewards as opposed to the fear of punishments.  Interestingly the opposite effect is also true.  In this case if we don’t want people to do something then it is more effective to issue the threat of punishment rather than reward compliance.

With the anticipation of a reward our brain initiates a ‘go’ signal triggered by dopaminergic neurons which leads us to take action.  When we anticipate something bad will happen, our brain initiates a ‘no-go’ signal which inhibits us from taking action.

These findings could prove very useful to leadership teams looking to define their company’s culture towards motivation and rewards.  In motivating your employees to achieve their goals the carrot is much more likely to result in them taking positive action.  However, the stick is still an important tool in warding off behaviours that are unacceptable.

For us, Emersive is in the carrot business!  We help companies develop and motivate high-performing teams through a range of inspiring incentive experiences and team building programmes.

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