Thinking Differently About the "Carrot and Stick" Management Style

A common question I hear is, "How do I improve the performance of my department?" There is not a one size fits all fix for any one group or organization. However, there are simple things that you can do that will help build a more positive relationship with you and your team, leading to better company culture and improvement of productivity. 

Improving the relationship between you and your team is vital in how you grow a more positive culture.  One of the biggest steps you can take is assessing the feedback that you give your team. The "carrot and stick" style of management is a common a widely used tactic for a lot of managers. I believe the widespread practice of the carrot and stick approach is because managers see the quick results and get to feel that their interactions played a role in the improvements. However,  studies show that complimenting (carrot) an employee or reprimanding (stick) an employee based on his or her performance is a flawed thought process. If done incorrectly (which is easy to do), the carrot and stick method is cashing in on short-term solutions by damaging your department's long-term prospects on improved culture and performance. 

I recently was talking with a manager about some negative feedback that he had received from his team in a recent evaluation. He didn't understand what he could do differently. "I'm  supposed to be okay with my team underperforming?" he asked. Of course not. However, there is a proper tool for every task. I explained to him Dr. Daniel Kahneman's statistical regression to the mean study. Kahneman is a winner of the Nobel Prize for his work in economics. His study in regression proved that employees perform at a consistent level. In the study, no amount of criticism or praise would change the average employee's performance over a week or month. 

Normally, this is when managers tend to cut me off. They have seen, first-hand that when they criticize an employee, the next day the employee's work improves. Even worse, the managers have been trained to stop using the carrot for the same reason. When they compliment an employee for a job well-done,  they don't take into account the natural regression that occurs when the employee reverts to his or her average performance level. The regression leaves the manager feeling betrayed. "I just said you did a good job, and now you go backward." Unfortunately, because of the confirmation bias that criticism creates improvements in employees, many managers keep only that style of leadership.

A better approach to feedback is to understand that instead of only carrot and stick, there are different tools that you can use to have an active and constructive conversation. When an employee is having a below average day, calling him or her in is an effective relationship building tactic. Start by saying, "Hey, I noticed you are running a bit sluggish today, is everything all right?" Helping develop a positive interaction focused on the performance allows you the chance to analyze if this is just a bad day or a more systemic issue.  Building a relationship with your employees does not mean that you have to be their best friend, but instead, look at each employee as more than what they do for your company. Making people feel heard, understood, and appreciated will build a better culture which leads to long-term growth and higher productivity. 

Long term positive reinforcement is not an easy task, but honestly, even trying to cultivate positive relationships in the workplace goes a long way.