Stick It

Maybe work is just a little too pleasant.

This week’s Wall Street Journal featured recommendations from several management experts on how to be a better boss in the New Year, and one of the suggestions was to wield a little more stick, a little less carrot. Specifically, Ray Fisman of Columbia Business School and Tim Sullivan of Harvard Business Review Press tout “the value of annoyance as a management tool.”

“Employees often wish managers were a little more understanding, but people tend to associate the idea of ‘understanding’ with ‘nice,’” Fisman and Sullivan write. “A little well-directed pain can be a good thing in getting workers to focus on the tasks they might otherwise choose to forget, and to increase overall productivity.”

The authors cite the restaurant chain Au Bon Pain, which promises customers a free meal “if the cashier fails to provide a receipt. It’s a way of making customers ensure the cashier records the transaction rather than pocketing the cash. In many cases, the cashier pays for the free meal, not the company—an annoying, but effective, reason to self-monitor.”

The question of how to motivate workers into better performance isn’t new, and Peter Drucker observed in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices that the topic had spawned a “proliferation of books, papers, and studies.”

Drucker noted that management professor Douglas McGregor (1906-1964) had been especially influential in the debate by formulating what McGregor called “Theory X” and “Theory Y.”  Theory X “assumes that people are lazy, dislike and shun work, have to be driven and need both carrot and stick . . . and have to be looked after.” Theory Y, on the other hand, “assumes that people have a psychological need to work and want achievement and responsibility.”

Image source: Linda Frost
Image source: Linda Frost

It was clear, Drucker said, that McGregor preferred Theory Y. “Yet things are far less simple than McGregor’s followers would make us—and themselves—believe,” he wrote. For one thing, most of us prefer the “security of order and direction,” at least to some extent, and that cannot come purely from internal drive. For another, Drucker pointed out, “ordinary, everyday experience teaches us that the same people react quite differently to different circumstances.” He added, “Or at the very least, there are different human natures which behave differently under different conditions.”

Ultimately, the factors influencing human motivation were so complex, Drucker felt, that no single formula could cover every situation. The “stick” of old wasn’t what it used to be—nor should it be—but Drucker didn’t dismiss it, either.

“Carrot and stick have worked for an amazingly long time,” he wrote. “One does not lightly toss out the tradition of the ages.”

Would today’s workplace benefit from a little more “stick” being applied? Why or why not?