Carrots and Sticks vs. Hearts and Minds: How to authentically motivate people

Our clients, like most leaders, are often concerned with how to motivate their employees to perform. In her recent post Rewards: Are they demotivating your team?, Harriet Anzek discussed Daniel Pink’s proposition from his book Drive: the surprising truth about what motivates us, which, in Pink’s words, is that “our current business operating system—which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators—doesn’t work and often does harm.”

carrot-and-stickBut if externally-based, so-called carrot-and-stick approaches don’t work, what does? Based on a theory of motivation called Self-Determination Theory, Pink’s book brought to light the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, and how to get more of the latter.

While most of us have heard of the basic distinction between extrinsic motivation (doing something to get rewards or avoid punishment) and intrinsic motivation (doing something out of genuine interest), it’s lesser-known that they’re really two ends of a continuum. Between carrots and sticks and doing something for the fun of it, people do what they do for all sorts of other reasons that are more or less “internalized”: because they want to avoid feeling guilty, because they recognize that the activity has value, or because the activity lines up with their identity and values. The more internalized the reason, the closer you get to intrinsic motivation.1

Some people do have the wonderful opportunity to do jobs that they find genuinely interesting in and of themselves; even for the luckiest among us, though, not every activity we do in those jobs is intrinsically motivating. How, then, can leaders foster more internalized motivation in their employees? And why would they bother?

I’ll answer the second question first: people who pursue goals for more internalized reasons perform better, are more satisfied, are more persistent, are more likely to internalize and maintain learning and values, are more engaged, have better health outcomes including less burnout, and are more likely to exhibit transformational leadership behaviors like inspirational motivation.1, 2 Sounds pretty great, right?

And now to the critical question of how. Self-Determination Theory tells us that human beings have three basic psychological needs3, the fulfillment of which are like nutrients that are essential for us to thrive:

  • Autonomy: The need to feel like the author of our own lives
  • Competence: The need to feel like we are effective, and getting more so over time
  • Relatedness: The need to feel connected to, care for, and be cared for by people around us

Decades of research on Self-Determination Theory in every domain of life, including work, has demonstrated that the satisfaction of these three basic needs leads to more internalized motivation and all sorts of great outcomes like the ones noted above, while thwarting those needs can have a variety of negative impacts.

So what kinds of workplace conditions satisfy or thwart these three critical needs?

Some examples from research include:

Need-satisfying conditions Need-thwarting conditions
  • Task variety4
  • Job autonomy4 and control5
  • Significantly impacting other people’s lives4
  • Understanding the organization’s strategy4
  • Social support5
  • Quality of relationships with direct reports and leaders2
  • Quantitative and qualitative “overload”5
  • Ambiguity (not having the information you need to do your job)5



You may not be able re-design people’s goals and activities around what they find intrinsically interesting, but you can still drive more internalized motivation by looking at how to satisfy people’s needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. How can you engage people in the value, importance, and impact of what your organization as a whole, and they individually, are up to, such that they identify with it, and ultimately, feel like they chose it for themselves? How can you ensure that they have what they need to be competent at their jobs and develop themselves? How can you create an environment in which people feel supported, cared for, and respected? The more you can engage in these kinds of questions, the more you can win over hearts and minds, and get better performance in the end.



1. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The 'what' and 'why' of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227-268.
2. Trepanier, S, Fernet, C., & Austin, S. (2012). Social and motivational antecedents of perceptions of transformational leadership: A self-determination theory perspective. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 44, 272-277.
3. Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.
4. Guntert, S. (2015). The impact of work design, autonomy support, and strategy on employee outcomes: A differentiated perspective on self-determination at work. Motivation and Emotion, 39, 99-103.
5. Fernet, C., Austin, S., Trépanier, S. G., & Dussault, M. (2013). How do job characteristics contribute to burnout? Exploring the distinct mediating roles of perceived autonomy, competence, and relatedness. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 22, 123-137.