Don’t Blame Amazon! High Performance Cultures Need the Stick

a businessman reaches for a carrot held on the end of a fishing pole

We were familiar with it as we grew up and then later as we tried to teach our children the right way to behave…it was the “carrot and stick” philosophy.

This approach to child rearing was named as it refers to a cart driver who dangles a carrot in front of a mule to motivate forward progress while at the same time holding a stick behind to urge him forward if the carrot didn’t work. Basically it is a policy of combining rewards and punishment to motivate desired behavior.

All well and good. What we can’t understand is how, in the business world, leaders have lost sight of the power of the stick.Many leaders seem to believe that behavior is driven only by rewards.

However, what we have learned in our 16+ years of high performance research with elite institutions such as Harvard, the U.S. Special Forces, Cisco, Accenture, MIT, NASA, Juilliard, and the Olympic Games, is that the stick, when done right, is needed too. The pressure to perform (symbolically the stick) is a necessary component to building high performance environments. If there are fair, proportionate, timely, accurate, transparent and meaningful consequences in the mix, team members work to avoid failure and achieve success more productively than with just the carrot alone.

We take issue, for example, with an article published recently on the BBC News web site (http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-35763908) that was critical of the way Amazon tried to deal with theft in their warehouses. Citing a report by Bloomberg, the article talked about Amazon’s screening of video clips that were designed to show what happens when employees are caught stealing. Not surprisingly, these employees, when caught, were fired. Some considered these videos offensive. Sure they may not be pleasant viewing but they leave no confusion about the consequences of warehouse theft. This is clearly the “stick” behind the mule.

As part of a balanced and high performance culture, we believe that the stick can be as powerful and persuasive as the carrot and that the two should be wisely used together. But we also know that performance pressure must be carefully watched and offset by other factors. If you create too much or too little performance pressure, your culture may suffer even if you have the “right” people and a “great” strategy.

Meaningful and purposeful cultures make employees proud and motivated to do their best at every task. High performers seem to do this effortlessly. But low performers need to be motivated to do their best and beyond. This is where the stick sometimes comes in. High performance cultures require that substandard performers (when given needed support) must improve relatively quickly if they wish to remain employed. This “improve with support or move on” mentality ensures that people focus on and are rewarded for pre-agreed-to performance standards.

And it keeps high performers motivated too. They are the ones who get discouraged if there are no consequences for low productivity on the job. They are apt to wonder the value associated with striving for excellence if the leaders don’t seem to notice or care when others slack off.

While we certainly believe that intrinsic motivation and positive reinforcement is a critical component to a high performance workplace, we also know that the highest performing organizations create an organizational culture with very clear performance standards and consequences for failing to meet minimal expectations.

Learn more about building a high performance culture.

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