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Carrot or stick, care to pick one?

Okay, that came off wrong! Let me back up a bit. No part of that title was meant to imply that you would be the ‘recipient’ of a carrot or a stick, metaphorically or literally. In fact, it considers you to be the provider of the said ‘carrot’ or ‘stick’, which I’ll get to in a few lines of course.

Great job! I could have just changed the title of the post, but then how in the blazes would I have spun a messy introduction to this otherwise black and white piece of opinion?

Anyway, jokes aside, I presume everyone understands the basic concept of the carrot and stick. Carrot signifies an implied benefit, while stick outlines an implied punishment based on the behaviour of any individual. To render this awkward definition crystal clear, let me cite an example.

Offering people a bottle of liquor and all-you-can-eat biryani to influence the electoral votes in a specific state-that-shall-not-be-named is an example of a carrot. Threatening people with a slow and painful death, covertly, of course, to influence the electoral votes in the same state is an example of a stick.

It so turns out that in the above scenario, the two items are not figurative at all. Biryanis DO have carrots in them, and being beaten by a stick IS a slow and painful way to die.

Now, the question of the hour is this – is one better than the other?

I think not. Both approaches are incredibly short-sighted and cannot be sustained over a prolonged period. (As was ably proven by the fall of a certain political party in a country that was once referred to as the ‘golden bird’) If you could figure that one out, then you are educated enough to know the difference between a joke and a fact. That’s all. Let’s move on.

The carrot method is at least non-violent, to begin with. To be more specific, it is non-aggressive in the classic sense of the word. For instance, if you refuse the carrot, nothing will go wrong AGAINST you. Someone else may reap the benefits of what you rejected, but that’s where it stops. In the short term, the carrot method is highly effective and can encourage some healthy competition in a team or a company. The promise of a hike in salary or a change in designation can go a long way in getting people to perform at a level beyond their baseline. But there is a line beyond which meritocracy suddenly transforms into cronyism.

What began as a pure merit-based reward system for good performance, becomes a corrupt system based on mutual-adulation. For instance, you’d bend over backwards to please your manager in exchange for a carrot, and soon all the carrots would appear to be customized to your taste and palette.

Let us now look at the other, notorious sibling – the stick, which is fast and effective, and if history offers any evidence, a handful of over-‘ambitious’ men of European descent would definitely swear by this technique. But, dictatorship and fascist regimes are not the only examples where sticks find their use.

The exit clause in employment contracts which demands the payment of a ‘penalty’ on premature resignation, is a fine example of this! The very same clause indeed helps keep attrition in check, but it is nothing short of a giant stick to the face of someone who failed to connect with the company due to no fault of his own!

The issue with the stick is dual-fold. The initial con of the punishment driven approach is that it kills the experimental drive of people, trains them to follow a routine process, and stifles free thought. So, in the most ironic sense, probably the stick is a great way to run a company or a country if the person running it is balanced enough.

Yeah right! It is always a great idea to let one person run a nation without any regulatory process! Mussolini, Hitler, Kim Jong-un, Idi Amin, and the other two-hundred-odd gentlemen listed here were all outliers in a long list of men who believed they had all the right answers! I believe that.

The second issue with the stick method is longevity. Though capable of lasting considerably longer than the elusive carrot, it can end as abruptly as it begins. You see, fear isn’t permanent. Someone, somewhere, will challenge the stick and throw the system into complete chaos. It is only a matter of time.

So what’s the right answer then?

Well, you could take a leaf out of the book written by the East India Company, and oscillate between the two! They did manage to fool us for a hundred and fifty years, so maybe you can pull through for a few decades as well!

The sane way to look at it would be to challenge the question itself. Why does it have to be a choice between either? Remember that the entire paradigm was invented to motivate a DONKEY to do work. Since most of us do work as a means to an end, the only thing that will sustain long-term motivation is to change the core reasoning behind the work itself!

Why do you think scientists and activists spend years on fruitless ventures that do no spare them any amount of pain? For a Nobel prize? Maybe. But every one of them honestly believes in what they’ve been pursuing ever since they were mature enough to make that choice.

So then, how can we emulate that same belief in the ‘ordinary’ world?

We could try to sell the importance of a job rather than the benefits attached to it. We could show public appreciation, and reward spontaneously, rather than promise some gain in exchange for a goal. We could keep policies that hold on to company culture, not uninterested employees. That’s the ideal way to do things. In a way, that is the right way to do them.

But, having spent five early years of my career in a company that was grossly misused by fresh graduates as a stepping stone to more lucrative opportunities, and having worked with the founder of the same company, who was equally bent on experimenting with sticks of all shapes and sizes, I can admit that doing the right thing is not easy.

But hang in there, because people mature with time, and they eventually see the right way.

And I say that because only four years ago did the dimwits from one of the most affluent countries in the world elect an orange duck to be their president. But, last year, at least a handful of those, did the right thing, and that’s all the motivation that I need.

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