For thousands of years we’ve simply accepted this idea that in all cases, “carrots” motivate people to do something they want and “sticks” motivate people to stop doing something they don’t want. We all think this way: managers with their employees, parents with their children, teachers and coaches with their students. One of the reasons for writing the book is to say that while that is not wrong, it is extremely limiting.
In one of our senior executive courses, a student, a VP in the aerospace industry, talked about a failed effort to improve the safety and reliability of their products. To produce the improvements, his solution was to introduce a carrot — a bonus. But the carrot failed. Next, he tried the stick — reducing salaries if safety didn’t improve. Safety did improve, but morale dropped.
To understand why sticks worked better than carrots, you have to distinguish between what are two very different systems for dealing with pleasure and pain. In the promotion system you are trying to gain and move forward to something better. Pleasure in this case is a gain, and pain is a non-gain. In the prevention system you are concerned about security and maintaining a satisfactory status quo, rather than a gain, which could be risky and result in a loss. Pleasure in this case is maintenance, feeling secure, and pain is loss.
Improving reliability and safety is a prevention issue. Therefore, you want to put workers in a prevention mindset so that they will be vigilant and careful. That aeronautics firm’s bonus probably put staff in a promotion mindset, prompting them to care more about innovation and creativity than safety and reliability.
Can you can induce these states of mind even when someone is predisposed toward one system or the other?
Yes, and it’s a real advantage for a manager, coach, or teacher to understand that. We’ve done research where success means ending up with $10 more and failure means not ending up with $10 more. In one case we frame it as a bonus, starting at zero and awarding $10 for achieving a set criteria of performance. In the other case we frame it as a potential loss, starting at $10 and deducting for mistakes. The first technique induces a promotion state and the second induces a prevention state. That aeronautics VP could have promoted safety and retained good morale by telling the developers that a certain amount of money had been set aside, but that it could be lost over the course of the year if safety goals were not met.
You don’t have to use incentives at all. Prevention also relates to duties and obligations, which have to do with relationships. If the product developers meet the people who are going to use their products, it might foster a sense of responsibility toward those people that would prompt the developers to be more vigilant in their work. [ You can read more about promotion and prevention systems here.]
That is related to another idea in the book, which is that people want to be effective. Would you talk about that?
Understanding how pleasure and pain relate to promotion and prevention states relates only to one way of being effective — value, or achieving desired results. Not all desired results bring hedonic pleasure: you can experience the pride of achievement, which for most people is accompanied by a lot of sweat, effort, and pain.
What the book says, in addition to that, is that we are very motivated to be effective, in ways that have nothing to do with value, but that have to do with control and truth. Control is the way you feel when you experience yourself having an effect on the world. In its most obvious form we see it in little kids jumping in puddles; you can see in their faces that they’re feeling effective and engaged. You see it in adults whenever we are manipulating things, one thing and then another and another, to make them work until we achieve the final goal.
You should set the conditions to allow employees as much as possible to be the ones who experience having the effect of managing what happens. Micromanaging does not allow employees to manage what happens; it takes away control effectiveness.