Carrot And Stick

Nov 21, 2014 1 Min Read

LDR-PDF-download-110x110Intrinsic vs extrinsic nature of motivation

It has been deeply ingrained in us for the longest time that if we want the people we lead to perform well, we should dangle a reward in front of them (e.g. a “carrot”) as an incentive, in the hope that what’s good will be achieved and repeated.

On the flip side, we put up a system of punishments (e.g. a “stick”) in various forms, in the hope that what’s bad will be avoided and not repeated.

This is the carrot and stick principle, which is very much extrinsic in nature. By whatever name we call it, it has been practised everywhere: education, workplace, sports, games, family and relationships.

This brings us to the question, is motivation so simplistic? Does the carrot and stick motivation actually work well?

Why don’t I change?

For some time, I have wondered why my bad behaviours don’t change, despite knowing full well the “sticks” in place.

In fact, they just reinforced the belief that I’m not good enough and not cut out to be who I want to be. At the same time, I’m deeply curious why monetary incentives don’t motivate me as much as they should.

I mean, surely money is one of the biggest and most effective motivational factors, right?

“Is there something wrong with me?” I used to wonder.

My innate thinking told me that there’s got to be something more, something deeper, something I couldn’t put my finger on; something that drives us to do great and extraordinary things.

I recalled that there were times I could do some things quite effortlessly, not because they were easy, but because they didn’t feel like work.

The ‘flow’

I have been an enthusiastic squash player for many years now. Of course, every time I get on the court, I play to win. I mean, surely nobody plays to lose, right?

The reward may not usually be in material form like money or trophies, but pride is equally (if not more) tangible as a reward. Losing face is to be avoided as much as possible. It’s still very much the “carrot and stick” motivation; it’s still extrinsic in nature.

Curiously enough, there were other times when I felt moments of “magic” when I played for the love and joy of playing squash, and not so much for winning points.

Unbelievable shots just flowed from my racket effortlessly. In moments like these, it felt like time stood still, and the experience was surreal. What a joy – I was in “the zone”.

It’s called ‘flow’

The now famous term was coined by the Hungarian psychology professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, which is the mental state of operation a person has when performing an activity and is fully immersed in the feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.

In essence, flow is characterised by complete absorption in what one does (definition taken from Wikipedia).

The purpose of this article is not to elaborate too much on “flow” (I recommend the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience if you haven’t read it already).

For me, I found out that there was something much higher, more powerful than the desire to win, which is the process of learning and mastery, which brought deep engagement and immense satisfaction to me.

And I wanted the freedom to do it on my own terms and not be restricted by boundaries set by the carrots and sticks.

I longed for my inner drivers (intrinsic) to move me and dictate my motivation, and not by external forces.

Deep down, I know this is much more fulfilling and rewarding in the long run. This applies to all areas of my life, not just in sports and games.

What drives us then?

Two years ago, I came across Daniel Pink’s book called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us which explained very well the intrinsic nature of motivation – what truly drives us.

Without reading Pink’s book, you can have a good grasp of his “drive” concept from his TED Talk video or the RSA animated version.

Intrinsic motivation

From Pink’s videos, you can see that there’s a big gap between what science knows and what people and businesses actually practise. And, the carrot and stick motivation understanding is outdated.

He suggested that the three essential elements of motivation are these:

  • Autonomy – The desire to self-direct our own lives.
  • Mastery – The urge to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Purpose – The yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

With that I could understand much better why I do what I do, why I don’t, what really moves me, and why I’m not motivated as much as I “should” by the external reward – punishment system in place.

  1. In place of the carrot and stick principle, give meaning and purpose to our pursuits and journey of accomplishments.
  2. Beyond the basic monetary/material reward system in place, allow yourself (and the people you lead) to have more autonomy, mastery and purpose, and watch what happens to your performance and overall happiness at work and life.

In coaching, many clients come with surface goals (extrinsic nature) at first. In the exploratory and clarifying stages, we help them discover deeper meaning and significance of what they truly want and why.

It’s common that the clients’ end goal inevitably shifts to something else, oftentimes something closer to their hearts during the coaching process.

Essentially, in order to make lasting positive change in clients, we have to let their actions be anchored and reinforced by intrinsic drivers, rather than extrinsic ones.

Coaching questions

  1. Now that you see that motivation is deeper than just carrot and stick, what has changed in your thinking?
  2. What new awareness has risen about the way you work and the people you lead?
  3. How can you listen more to your intrinsic motivations and allow them to drive you?
  4. How can you give more meaning to your work?
  5. What is the bigger purpose that your work serves?
  6. Besides autonomy, mastery and purpose, what could be your other intrinsic drivers?
Hwai Tah is the founder of and a certified professional coach and Professional Certified Coach with ICF (International Coach Federation). Get in touch with him by emailing us at

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