The carrot and the stick

Landschlacht, Switzerland, Wednesday 21 August 2019

This is an opinion piece.

Not about politics, not about travel, but about work.


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Too often too many good people hate their jobs and the reason that they do is that their employers often have no idea how to lead their charges.

The phrase “carrot and stick” is a metaphor for the use of a combination of reward and punishment to induce a desired behavior.


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The carrot-and-stick principle is this:

A stick is tied to the bridle of a mule or donkey, or held by the human rider or cart driver so that it extends above and in front of the animal’s head, and the carrot hangs on a string from the far end of the stick, just out of reach of the pack animal’s mouth.

Attracted by the sight and smell, the donkey steps forward to bite at the carrot, but of course, as it is attached to the stick, the carrot also moves forward and remains out of reach.

Not especially brilliant, the beast repeats the same ineffective strategy ad infinitum, thereby pulling or carrying whatever or whomever it’s laden with, until the poor animal collapses from exhaustion.

Thus, the metaphor can serve as a visualization of what can sometimes happen in corporate and other settings, with executives “dangling” a promotion, for example (the “carrot“) in front of the rank and file in order to get massive amounts of work out of them in exchange for very little reward.



In general usage, any promised reward that is really a tease may be referred to as a “dangling carrot“.


In more contemporary times, the phrase has been broadly amended to “carrot or stick“, an illustration of an authority figure holding a reward (the carrot) in one hand and a punishment (the stick) in the other, to signify a no-brainer of a choice presented to the other party.


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For example, in politics, “carrot or stick” sometimes refers to the realist concept of soft and hard power.

The carrot in this context could be the promise of economic or diplomatic aid between nations, while the stick might be the threat of military action.


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The earliest English-language references to the “carrot and stick” come from authors in the mid-1800s who in turn wrote in reference to a “caricature” or cartoon of the time that depicted a race between donkey riders, with the losing jockey using the strategy of beating his steed with “blackthorn twigs” to urge it forward, while the winner of the race sits in his saddle relaxing and holding the butt end of his baited stick.

In fact, in some oral traditions, turnips were used instead of carrots as the donkey’s temptation.


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Decades later, the device appeared in a letter written by Winston Churchill dated 6 July 1938, worded in such a way as to possibly bolster the “carrot or stick” side of later debates:

Churchill writes:

Thus, by every device from the stick to the carrot, the emaciated Austrian donkey is made to pull the Nazi barrow up an ever-steepening hill.


Churchill wearing a suit, standing and holding a chair


The Southern Hemisphere caught up in 1947 and 1948 amid Australian newspaper commentary about the need to stimulate productivity following World War II.


A map of the eastern hemisphere centred on Australia, using an orthographic projection.


The earliest uses of the idiom in widely available U.S. periodicals were in The Economist‘s 11 December 1948 issue and in a Daily Republic newspaper article that same year that discussed Russia’s economy.

In the years leading up to World War II and during the war itself, Joseph Stalin applied the “carrot or stick” principle among the nations of the Soviet Sphere of Influence in order to establish tighter control over them.

For example, in 1934 Stalin reversed his decision to attack the Socialists of the region, instead allowing them to join the “People’s Front Against Fascism and War“.

Despite this alliance’s limited success when it came to strategies against the fascism of Nazi Germany, Stalin had effectively replaced the “stick” of aggression he had been using against the Socialists with the “carrot” of a better deal for them: membership in a more sweeping system of Popular Fronts against the Axis.

Stalin’s use of reward and punishment, as described above, has not been unique in the world arena.


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A casual survey of international news confirms that the tactic is still in common use today, by people in power up to and including the presidents of the USA and NATO.


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Following are the implications of the Carrot and Stick Approach:

(i) An overdose of ‘carrot’ element, in the system of motivation, invites laziness and fewer attitudes towards work on the part of individuals.

This happens, specially, because many times, people get carrot (i.e. rewards) regardless of their performance, e.g. salary increase, seniority based promotions, etc.


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(ii) An overdose of ‘stick’ element, in the system of motivation leads to retaliatory behaviour on part of people, strong organisation of labour unions against management atrocities, poor quality workmanship, etc.


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The carrots our employers dangle before us?

  • Wages
  • Regular payment
  • Cash awards
  • Allowances
  • Bonus payment
  • Paid leave
  • Profit-sharing schemes
  • Pensions
  • Incentives
  • Travel expenses
  • Reimbursement of medical expenses
  • Subsidized food or transportation
  • Free uniforms
  • Free or subsidized education
  • Job security
  • Promotions
  • Empowerment of employees
  • Assignment of challenging work
  • Certificates of merit
  • Status symbols


The sticks our employers threaten us with?

  • Loss of job
  • Fines
  • Penalties
  • Withholding of salary
  • Demotion
  • Transfer
  • Lack of empowerment
  • Not allowing workers to participate in decisions


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Sadly, I feel that the stick is employed far more often than the carrot in “motivating” employees.

Too often changes are made in the workplace that affect the workers, but the workers are not consulted nor are they privy to the reasoning behind the changes.

There seems to be an overriding assumption that you must be less wise if you are an employee, otherwise you would be an employer, therefore you cannot be trusted with any real responsibility.

Employees are chess pawns to many employers who will close job sites that they were too incompetent to maintain and cast the future of their workers into the wind with the attitude that the workers who don’t desire to be transferred don’t deserve to work.


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The Peter Principle, wherein a person is promoted to their level of incompetence, is quite prevalent in many industries, but it is a rare employee (and especially employer) who once promoted will accept demotion as deserving when the Peter Principle applies to them.



Withholding of salary is especially cruel as most workers are highly dependent upon the salaries they obtain, but the intention to motivate the salary-deprived into better job performance generally backfires and has the opposite effect.

Penalties and fines, though less dehabilitating as salary withholding, also have the same tendency to backfire.


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The threat of firing is truly a powerful fear used by employers, but it is questionable whether everyone who gets fired always merits their dismissal.

If an employee is fired then the onus is on the employer, for most of the time the employer failed in their roles of properly maintaining all their team members in regards of confirmation of expected standards, of proper training, or supervision of morale.


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If an employee lacks motivation it is usually because the employee has not been given a reason to care and doesn’t know why they should.


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We all have to earn money to maintain our lives, but money, as motivating as it can be, is not enough to encourage whole-hearted dedication from an employee, especially if the salary received is far lower than the salary received by those above.

What especially galls employees is how much better rewarded employers are for their efforts when much of the company’s success is achieved by the employees.


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How few employers put themselves into their employees’ shoes and pitch in where needed.

How few employers truly understand what it is like to be an employee.

How few employers consult their workers when introducing new policy that they expect the workers to blindly follow, regardless of how unfeasible or impractical these policies might be to implement.

How few employers can see beyond the bottom line and realize how truly dependent they are upon employees to achieve desired results which employees themselves rarely benefit from.


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Employees are a company’s most valuable assets, for it is they who deal with customers who finance the company.

Employees will not be motivated if they are inadequately paid.

Employees will not improved if they are not mentored.

Employees will not be motivated if they are not challenged.

Employees will only appreciate and thrive in promotion if they have been made ready for promotion and not just promoted for simply surviving at that company for a certain length of time.

Employees will not be motivated if they are not involved in the decisions that affect them.

Employees will not be motivated if they feel they are unappreciated, if they feel more criticism than praise.

Employees will not be motivated if they don’t feel valued by the company, value that is not only shown by salary.


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Employees need to feel that they share the company’s mission and profit from it, rather than being simply a cog in an uncaring machine designed for only profit-garnering for the highest levels.

Employees need to feel empowered, that their individuality is appreciated and encouraged, and that initiative is welcome.

Employees need to feel trusted rather than as potential thievies seeking any opportunity to steal resources (including time) from the firm.


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Too many companies pay the barest minimum they can, even if they can well afford to pay more.

Too many companies expect excellence from their workers, yet fail to provide leadership that shows what the company’s ideal of excellence is or how that ideal can be achieved.

Too many companies fail to challenge their workers, but instead expect contentment from them even in the most mundane tasks they assign them.

Too many companies promote their people to positions that they are woefully unprepared for, simply because they need to show that promotion is possible in the company.

Too many companies promote their people and then harass them for not doing a job well for which they have prepared them poorly.

Too many managers make decisions with little thought of how these decisions will affect the employees or customers.

Too many managerial decisions are made in the interest of cost-cutting and then wonder why employees don’t feel appreciated for the job they do, knowing that a fit of cost-cutting will overnight render their job obsolete.


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I will be blunt.

Not only won’t management read this post, but I daresay if they did, it won’t matter to them.


The hardest part of being someone else’s employee is the acceptance of powerlessness.

Regardless of how they should change, they won’t.

So the only room for change has to be from the individual employee, regardless of reward or punishment that may follow.


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The only true power we have is over ourselves.


The first piece of advice I give to my fellow workers, my fellow sufferers, is:


Find yourself and be yourself, not expecting the company to create that someone.

Life is what we make it and nobody is so miserable as they who long to be somebody and something other than the person they are.


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I will quit my employer in a heartbeat the day I feel that my personality does not fit the company’s desired image, the day the company does not fit my personality.


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I think this honesty with oneself begins even before a job starts.

The biggest mistake people make in applying for work is in not being themselves.

Instead they offer answers they think the employer wants to hear.


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They forget that not only should they fit in the company, but as well the company should fit them.

When we act against who we are, against who we want to be, then we can only offer a fraction of our potential.


For example, I will never be able to write like Shakespeare, but I can write like myself and that’s OK.




I compare myself to my counterparts at Starbucks.

I will never be like them, but they will never be like me, and that’s OK.

I can learn from them, and they from me, but it is idiocy to expect us to be copies of each other.


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Let us not imitate others.

Let us find ourselves and be ourselves.


If it fits a company’s philosophy, great.

If it does not, then we need to seek out a place where our personalities are viewed as assets and not liabilities.


To help prevent fatigue and worry in the positions we are in, we need to learn how to:

  • Deal with immediate challenges at hand.
  • Do things in order of importance.
  • Avoid delay when dealing with a problem.
  • Learn to organize, delegate and support each other as a team.


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One of the chief reasons many of us return home utterly exhausted from work is boredom.

Boredom with our work.

Boredom with our lives.


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Perhaps the solution is do our best to make our dull job interesting.

Perhaps if we make up our minds to do our jobs as if we really enjoyed them then perhaps this determination to amuse ourselves will give us the energy, the zest and zeal to survive that job and lend to the happiness we find in our leisure hours.


I remember a bus driver in Montréal who would sing as he drove and greet his passengers as if they were the most important people on the planet.

He did this for his own amusement and his amusement made riding with him an enjoyable experience.

The funny thing is his amusement in the job made the job amusing for him.

Driving the same route day after day, year after year, cannot always be amusing, so there must be times the bus driver acted as if the ride was amusing, until he felt it was amusing.


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If we do our jobs as if we really enjoy them, then we do enjoy them to a certain extent.

If we determine to make the job interesting we will find what is interesting about the job.


For example, as a Starbucks barista (the oldest barista in Switzerland) I have basically three jobs:

  • Sell the drinks.
  • Make the drinks.
  • Clean.


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How can I make selling drinks interesting when the process is fairly repetitive?

I seek to amuse myself with the customers, I seek amusement from the customers, I seek what is interesting about each and every customer.


How can I make drink production interesting?

I amuse myself by singing as I make the drinks.

I present the drinks with different remarks as individual to each customer as I can imagine.


How can I make clean-up interesting?

I ask the customers how they are enjoying our wondrous creations.

I greet them as I clean up after them.

When they are gone from the store I try to find a way to make my co-workers laugh as we, yet again, clean the store in a manner identical to so many days repeated before.


I may not always enjoy every customer but I act as if I do.

I may not always enjoy making drinks but I act as if I do.

I may not always enjoy cleaning up but I act as if I do.


I do this not for promotion, not for the company, but to amuse myself.

Often to my surprise I find myself being complimented by my co-workers for my remarkable energy when within myself I am feeling utterly exhausted.

My energy springs from my amusement, my amusement is deliberately cultivated.


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Part of the struggle of being human is that we all have our problems.

The challenge is in remembering our blessings.

Yes, I am working at jobs beneath my potential, but I am working while others cannot.

My left knee is in constant pain, but I can walk while others cannot.

I need glasses to read, but at least I am not blind.

Life is not always a parade of roses but at least I am alive to appreciate what roses there are.


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Life is so damned short.

If we don’t find joy within it, then we will have wasted that life.


There will always be toxic people who will seek to humiliate and block you, but they act in this manner not because you are deserving of their rage, but because they are undeserving of your success.

The only defence is to keep doing the best that you can.

Those who criticize, condemn or complain about you are only revealing themselves to be interested only in bolstering their poor self-image by attacking your character.


As Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

Use what language you will, you can never say anything but what you are.”


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Be better than they are by refusing to act like they do.

Instead, with everyone, seek out something to give honest and sincere appreciation about.


Motivational writer Dale Carnegie had an old saying that he cut out and pasted on his mirror where he could not help but see it every day:


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I shall pass this way but once.

Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any being, let me do it now.

Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.


Forget flattery.

Give honest, sincere appreciation.

Become genuinely interested in other people.

And you in turn will receive appreciation and will find people genuinely interested in you.


We cannot change the socioeconomic society we live in overnight, but we can change ourselves.

We need to stop beating ourselves up for who we aren’t and instead praise ourselves for who we are and believe in ourselves for who we can be.


There is more to life than work, but, in this expensive age we live in, we devote 80% of our adult lives to work.

Shouldn’t our jobs give us the joy of living since we devote so much of our lives to these jobs?


Let us not make the mistake that a job or life itself gives us happiness but rather let us bring happiness to that job and to our lives.


It is not the job that gives a person dignity.

It is the person that brings dignity to the job.


For too long we have been our own sticks.

It’s time to grow our own carrots.


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Sources: Wikipedia / Google / Dilbert: The Joy of Work, Scott Adams / How to Enjoy Your Life and Your Job, Dale Carnegie / Achieving Excellence, Robert Heller / The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need, Daniel H. Pink / Top Performance: How to Develop Excellence in Yourself and Others, Zig Ziglar
















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