Sticks, Carrots, Coercion and Coaching

“What we did establish is that the carrots offered were far less effective than the sticks employed.”

Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts – talking about the ‘limited effect’ of Pathways to Work pilots

Sticks and carrots have a long and noble tradition in the  management of donkeys.  However even with donkeys there are times when the ‘bribe and  punish’ approach to change management fails:

  • When the donkey is not hungry enough
  • When the effort of reaching the carrot is too great (the burden is too heavy)

In these circumstances we may choose to resort to the stick.  But this too will not work if:

  • the pain of the stick is thought to be less than the pain of moving forward
  • the donkey learns to like the stick and the attention that it brings

But I think the real issue here is not about the limitations of sticks and carrots in the management of donkeys and people.

It is about the complete and utter failure to understand the nature of human motivation.  Motivation is that which energises, directs and sustains a person’s efforts.  Sustains efforts.  Sticks and carrots applied to move a donkey from one (expensive) field to another (less expensive) field do NOTHING to sustain efforts.  In fact it is likely to achieve the opposite.  The donkey returns to its passive state until more carrots and sticks appear on the scene.  And the state wants more enterprising communities?

But the major problem is not treating people like donkeys, and further dulling their enterprising souls.  It is that the state believes that this is the most effective, fair and just way of changing behaviour.  That this is such a common default setting when trying to manipulate the behaviours and choices of its citizens.

And we wonder why ‘community engagement’ is so difficult.  When you have beaten and bribed your donkeys into submission don’t expect them to engage with you, without the use of ever more sticks and carrots.

Perhaps instead of resorting to a coercive approach to change, we might try instead a coaching approach?

Helping people to recognise their long term self interest and how it may be pursued.  Helping  them to develop the power they need to make progress in their lives.  Helping them to recognise that it is possible and that they don’t need to be pushed around by a bureaucratic system of sticks and carrots.  That THEY have choices and agency in their own lives.  Vegetable wielding bureaucrats do not have to be the architects of their future.

And what if someone decides that their long-term self interest is served by staying exactly where they are?

Well, we could just leave them alone and put our time, energy and investment into those that want to explore pastures new.  Why should the squeaky wheel get all the grease?

Because perhaps people are more like sheep than donkeys.  When they see some of the flock moving forward others are sure to follow.

Aren’t they?


  1. Louise Ebrey says:

    Hi Mike

    Have you read Daniel Pink’s Drive? I’m part way through at the moment. It’s all about extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and why carrot and stick used to work in the old days, but with modern jobs you need to do something different.



  1. […]  Conversations that don’t use ‘benefits’ and ‘enterprise’ as carrots and sticks to manipulate people to meet government targets and trigger payments by ‘results’. […]

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