On Leadership and Counting Carrots

Carrot and Stick

“When you blame others, you give up your power to change.” ~ Dr. Robert Anthony

So What’s Your Carrot?

Do you know what motivates others at work? Research from Duke University and George Mason University reveals that, although you might think you do; you probably don’t.

At regular intervals over a forty-year period, executives were asked to rank what they thought motivated their employees. They consistently got it wrong.  Executives erroneously believed that external factors and incentives such as compensation, bonuses, job security, and promotions are what most motivated their employees.

But what do the employees say?  They report that it is inherent factors, such as interesting work, being appreciated for making meaningful contributions, a feeling of being involved in decisions, and being part of something bigger that motivates them the most.

However, employees were no better off predicting what motivated their bosses and peers. They got it wrong, too; believing it is external factors that motivates others – especially their superiors.

The fact is, executives report being motivated mostly by autonomy, their inherent interest in their work, big challenges, and a sense of relatedness with colleagues.

True Incentives & Rewards

In psychology we call these biases – particularly the self-serving bias and the extrinsic incentive bias. We give more credit to internal and inherent motivations to ourselves than we do to others and think others are more externally motivated than they probably are.

These biases between boss and employee can lead to sub-optimal incentive, reward, and compensation programs. It can lead to negative thoughts such as

“Since I can’t pay my staff more and promote them like I want to, they don’t seem very motivated. I guess there’s nothing I can do.”


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Eroding Trust

But more importantly, these biases and their corresponding negative thoughts erode trust. Anil Saxena recently wrote of trust in a recent L2L blog and how trust can only develop when our relationships are adult ones.   When they’re not and we allow biases and negative thinking to flourish instead, this can erode trust and make working well together difficult.

This doesn’t mean that money, promotions, and the like are not important. They are. Just much less than we think.

Other research shows that as long as employees feel they are earning a fair wage, inherent factors begin to take over as motivators, or if not met, as a detriment.

Lee Ellis also recently wrote on an excellent piece here on L2L about trust and coaching.  He learned employees valued two attributes most from their leaders: support and helping direct reports develop.

This can’t happen unless you also have some clues about what motivates them.

Undercover Revelations

I don’t watch much commercial TV, but one show I occasionally enjoy really knows how to bring this awareness out in bosses: Undercover Boss. In almost every episode I’ve seen, the CEO has an eye-opening experience not only about what frontline employees and their supervisors do, but more importantly, what motivates them.

The boss always walks away from the experience with a transformed perspective.

When both bosses and employees reduce blame and finger-pointing by reversing erroneous beliefs and ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) about each other, we foster trust, engagement, and a better working environment – and we know this leads to higher productivity, reduced turnover, higher customer satisfaction, and increased profits.

And who doesn’t want that?

How do you foster a keener awareness of what motivates your employees? How do you use that knowledge and awareness to develop trust and motivate others? What beliefs can you let go of that will help you be a better leader?


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Learn, Grow & Develop Other Leaders

Alan Mikolaj

Alan Mikolaj is a Professional and Inspirational Trainer, Keynote Speaker & Author
He is the author of three books and holds his Master of Arts  in Clinical Psychology
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Image Sources: anticap.files.wordpress.com

16 responses to “On Leadership and Counting Carrots

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  3. I really enjoyed your blog post on the motivation of employees in the workplace. In particular I enjoyed when you mentioned the self-serving bias with regard to internal motivation, and how important it is in gaining work performance from employees. Glad to see my management classes are teaching me useful information!


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  7. Great blog post, Alan. So frequently, leaders make assumptions about employees’ motivation (and vice versa). What a valuable dialogue this would be, if the question were surfaced openly!


    • Transparency, openness, and authenticity – or playing like adults without hidden agendas – certainly helps the cause! Thank you for your kind comments, Joan!


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