The Carrot or the Stick?

The perception of values in the workplace can vary signficantly depending on factors such as gender, age, or the country one works in. This puts in question the boss’s leadership style: fear and guilt or altruism and engagement?

1. Stuart Bannatyne and Adam Minoprio pass into the ‘furious fifties’ on their way South to Cape Horn

It is an age-old question: which personal style should the boss use to engage the team, the carrot or the stick? It is an age-old question: which personal style should the boss use to engage the team, the carrot or the stick? Some assume people are by nature lazy, always seeking the lowest level of energy exertion. By yielding a big stick the thinking goes, authority figures accomplish more; fear, guilt, and micromanaging pay off.
Others, however, believe the carrot is most engaging; that by demonstrating tolerance, altruism, and positive reinforcement, one obtains increased productivity and efficiency. Ask a highly paid consultant; for a fee of a few thousand euros, the answer you get back just might be “it depends.” Perhaps it depends on whether you are the visionary leader or the finance manager chasing six-month-old receivables. Maybe it depends on an individual’s political, theological, or philosophical beliefs: we only live once and the hell with who gets hurt on the climb to the top; or we live many lives and reap what we sow. Maybe Darwin had it right; it’s survival of the fittest. Let’s dissect this seemingly complex and age-old question and skip the highly paid consultant.


First, consider the primary daily order in the human operating system, our OS. When we come to work each day, what do we do? Basically, we point and shoot. Humans are teleological in nature; we all need to have a target and know where we are on the path to hitting it. If a leader fails to accurately define the target, you cannot blame the staff for missing it. On the other hand, if the leader does his or her job, but the manager fails to provide a feedback mechanism, how can the staff possibly know whether they are off course or how to self-correct? In this case, the company is no different than the crew of a ship without a destination, rudder, or captain. No one will be engaged in the task at hand; and when you eventually realize you’re spinning in circles, people will start pointing fingers and casting blame. At the end of the day, morale will plummet and with it employee engagement. The moral to the story: every organization must first have a clearly articulated target—a measurable goal at a specific point in time—and feedback mechanisms in place. If you don’t have these fundamentals, chances are pretty good that leaders and managers alike might have to bring in a stick big enough for the Hulk to swing around, just to get everyone to quiet down and listen up.

2. Martin Stromberg

3. Media crew member Rick Deppe. (PUMA Ocean Racing’s il mostro)



Let’s assume we have a target, the path is clear, and a feedback loop is in place. The carrot or stick: recognition or guilt? The personal style question might now depend on understanding the role and responsibilities of the employee in question: is he the leader responsible for communicating an inspirational vision, or the manager maintaining control and order? Typically, we follow the guidance of the leader because of his personal and charismatic power, and of the manager because of institutional power. On the other hand, an altruistic finance manager might destroy the cash flow, while a fear-mongering leader may inspire isolation instead of innovation and creativity. It is time to take these concepts down to practical reality and consider two scenarios to test your thinking and personal style. Regardless of your organizational position, we all have a leadership and management style. That method not only depends upon your role and responsibility in the organization, but on your personal values and beliefs as well.


Imagine for a moment that you’re the CEO, and one of your most valuable employees, Paula, just came into the office crying. Her husband is dying of cancer and Paula needs time off to take care of her husband and family. She will be absent for months, not weeks.
Essentially you have two choices:

  1. You sympathize, perhaps empathize, with Paula, but policy is policy. Paula can use her two weeks of paid vacation, but then she must return to work or risk losing her job. There is just no guarantee the position will be there when she returns after twelve weeks.
  2. You assemble Paula’s team and devise a plan to balance the work, which will allow her three months off with pay. You notify everyone in the office of Paula’s personal situation and ask for volunteers to help out the family however they can.


Your technology consulting company has just spent $250,000 on a team of twenty people, working for three months to submit a competitive $65 million systems proposal. The results are in. Your proposal came in at the lowest price and was rated highest for technical quality, but you’re disqualified because it was turned in two minutes after the deadline.
You have two choices on how to deal with the pursuit leader:

  1. Conduct a search for the guilty party, chastise them in front of the entire organization, fire the culprit, and thereby make it clear that such incompetence will not be tolerated.
  2. Call in the pursuit leader, investigate what went wrong, then have the investigators conduct pursuit leader training, turning a $65 million dollar mistake into a priceless lesson for future teams.

4. Jean-Luc Nelias during leg 1

5. Onboard medic Tony Rae administers three stitches and anaesthetic bowman Mike Pammenter, after suffering a broken tooth and gash to the face in a fall during a sail change.


We could develop a list of pros and cons for each scenario, but the ultimate decision will be based on the target and path of your organization. The target is your organizational purpose—your reason for existence—and the path is the combination of values and beliefs of the enterprise. If your organization’s purpose is to serve a greater good, the individuals within the organization will be more inspired, engaged, and energized and your answers to the above case studies will likely reflect the more tolerant, patient, and understanding approach. Paula will be given all the time she needs to care for her family; the team will support her knowing that someday the same thing might happen to them. And the pursuit leader will train everyone on the lessons learned in submitting proposals on time. Finally, the leaders and managers will balance the needs of the company with that of the individuals and think more long-term. The company that demonstrates altruistic tendencies and balances the needs of its people with shareholders will have more innovation, creativity, and sustainable growth. If, however, your corporate purpose is to exceed the analyst projections in the coming quarterly earnings or maximize a performance bonus, then chances are your employee engagement is below twenty-percent, loyalty and productivity are low, and employee attrition is high. In this mindset, the needs of the individuals are subservient to results, and staff is considered a disposable commodity. Paula will be left without a job after two weeks; the pursuit manager will be fired in disgrace; and employees will hide in their cubicles. No one will ever want to be a large pursuit leader; and what’s worse, when trouble strikes, the staff will resort to a basic animalistic nature by pointing fingers and covering every move with emails copied to a dozen people.


Photos. Volvo Ocean Race 2011-12.
Photocredits by: 3-2-4 Yann Riou/Groupama Sailing Team/Volvo Ocean Race (Groupama Sailing Team).
1-5 Hamish Hooper/CAMPER ETNZ/Volvo Ocean Race (CAMPER with Emirates Team New Zealand).

Published in the hard-copy of Work Style Magazine, Fall 2013