Motivation training
Motivation training from ITD helps managers and leaders motivate their teams

We continue to revisit the issue of motivation and specifically, the “carrot and stick” aspect.  Research seems to indicate that brain chemicals may control behavior and for people to learn and adapt in the world; therefore, both punishment and reward may be necessary. This conclusion would certainly run counter to the trend towards positive motivation without extrinsic reward or punishment.

Can you influence or even change a person’s behavior through conditioning? The real question is, which route would you choose—positive or negative? Most people are taught to refrain from engaging in a certain behavior by being given punishments that create negative feelings. This helps maintain discipline at home, school and even organizations. However, it has long been debated as to which one works better on behavior.

Are there genetic and brain chemistry factors that could influence our perspective on this issue?

Hanneke den Ouden and Roshan Cools and their colleagues from the Donders Institute in Nijmegen and New York University have published their research in the journal Neuron. They concluded brain chemicals serotonin and dopaminerelated genes influence how we base our choices on past punishments or rewards. This influence depends on which gene variant you inherited from your parents. Den Ouden explains: “We used a simple computer game to test the genetic influence of the genes DAT1 and SERT, as these genes influence dopamine and serotonin. We discovered that the dopamine gene affects how we learn from the long-term consequences of our choices, while the serotonin gene affects our choices in the short term.”

Den Ouden goes on to say “Different players use different strategies. It all depends on their genetic material. People’s tendency to change their choice immediately after receiving a punishment depends on which serotonin gene variant they inherited from their parents. The dopamine gene variant, on the other hand, exerts influence on whether people can stop themselves making the choice that was previously rewarded, but no longer is.”

What implications does this have on the issue of employee motivation in the workplace?

Motivating people to do their best work, consistently, has been an enduring challenge for executives and managers. Even understanding what constitutes human motivation  has been a centuries old puzzle, addressed as far back as Aristotle.


It turns out that people are motivated by interesting work, challenge, and increasing responsibility—intrinsic factors. People have a deep-seated need for growth and achievement. Herzberg’s work influenced a generation of scholars and researchers—but never seemed to make an impact on managers in the workplace, where the focus on motivation remained the “carrot-and-stick” approach, or external motivators.

The carrot-and-stick approach worked well for typical tasks of the early 20th century —routine, unchallenging and highly controlled. For these tasks, where the process is straightforward and lateral thinking is not required, rewards can provide a small motivational boost without any harmful side effects. But jobs in the 21st century have changed dramatically. They have become more complex, more interesting and more self-directed, and this is where the carrot-and-stick approach has become unstuck. In summary, the implications for managers in organizations are significant. Leaders today must be not just cognizant of the latest research on motivation, but take action to make those organizational and relationship changes to take advantage of this research. And care must be taken to simply conclude that our motivation is blindly driven by brain chemicals.

Carrot or stick, which is best for motivating?

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