You Can’t Motivate With Carrots & Sticks, Says Yale Psychologist

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It’s the age-old question: How do you build a workplace culture where employees are intrinsically motivated? Somewhat surprisingly, although overwhelming research speaks against traditional systems of rewards and recognition, so many companies continue wasting money on what has proved not to work.

Paul Marciano, Ph.D. shares my passion for employee engagement, and we’ve become good friends over recent years. He earned his doctorate in clinical psychology from Yale University. He’s served on the faculties of Davidson and Princeton, and travels the world speaking on topics of leadership, culture, and retention. He’s the author of several books including Super Teams and the bestseller Carrots and Sticks Don't Work: Build a Culture of Employee Engagement with the Principles of RESPECT.

I recently interviewed Paul to get his advice on making that elusive emotional connection with employees. (The transcript below has been edited lightly for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: You say, “Carrots and sticks don’t work.” Why not?

Paul Marciano: It’s interesting, because from 40 years’ worth of research tells us not only that traditional reward and recognition programs aren’t effective, they actually decrease the overall morale of a workforce. And yet companies continue to spend their money and time investing in the worst.

The worst is “employee of the month.” If you really want to do something actually to demotivate your team, go ahead and put that one into place.

Kruse: You have a model called RESPECT. Walk us through it.

Marciano: Sure. Respect is such a fundamental driver of motivation and engagement. What I find is that the extent to which people feel respected and respect the leadership of the organization, that affects the work that they do. They take pride in that work, and their fellow team members.

The R is for Recognition, so recognizing and acknowledging people’s contributions. Again, not in the traditional “employee of the month,” but actually something as simple as going up, Kevin, shaking your hand and saying, “Thank you for staying late and working with that customer. It made a difference for us and for that customer.”

The E is for Empowering Employees, and I think that we do the greatest disservice to our first-line supervisors. We promote them for reasons that have nothing to do with being successful, and the people in manager role, we promote them because they’re really good at turning the wrench. So, empowering means, especially at this supervisor level, making sure that they have the training, the skills–coaching, delegating, building teamwork–that they need to be successful.

S is for Supportive Feedback, and so I always ask, “Who likes giving critical feedback?” and I haven’t met a whole lot of people who do, so what I say is, “You don’t have to worry about giving critical feedback. All you have to do is worry about giving supportive feedback, so feedback that comes from a place that, ‘I care about you being successful. I care about our team being successful.’” You can give the most critical feedback, but do it in a respective and constructive, not destructive manner.

P is for Partnering, so developing collaborative working relationships. First, one-on-one, breaking down that hierarchy, breaking down silos across departments, really fostering this active kind of collaboration within and across teams.

The second E is for setting clear Expectations and holding people accountable. I always tell the manager, “If your employee’s not meeting the goals, it’s because they don’t respect you. Because if they respected you, they would get the job done.”

The C is for Consideration, so demonstrating just basic kinds of civility of thank you, and please, and holding the door open. One of my favorite quotes is, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” by Maxwell, and so this is one of those things that people tend to be naturally good at or not naturally good at. Empathy, I think, is such a critical characteristic and one that’s really hard to teach.

Then, the last is, is Trust. Like respect, relationships don’t work without a base of trust, and we can all, I think, relate both professionally and personally. If we’re in a relationship, something happens, and that trust is broken, it’s almost impossible to put it back together. I did a lot of research on personality traits in effective leadership, and the biggest driver was trust, and I realized that it’s because the opposite is distrust, and that gets manifested behaviorally as micromanaging. For anybody who’s ever had somebody micromanage or looking over their shoulder and conveying, “I don’t trust you to get your job done,” nothing squashes initiative and enthusiasm like that.

As a leader, your employee has to know that you have their back.

Kruse: What is one thing readers can do today that will make them better leader?

Marciano: We all know that communication is critical. And I think probably the most important communication skill is around active listening because we all want to be heard. So, especially when you’re in a conversation with somebody you disagree with or you disagreed with in the past, I encourage people to get really curious.

It’s one thing to say, “Hey, you should actively listen.” But if you take it to the point of, “I’m curious about the next words coming out of this person’s mouth,” this really changes the way you listen to others.

Click here to listen to the full interview with Dr. Paul Marciano.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at