Carrots and Sticks and Candles

Carrots and Sticks may motivate a horse to run, but Dan Pink argues that for humans, they just aren’t good motivators. In the video posted below, he shares some amazing research about motivation. I thought I’d share a bit of it here for all you guys who are leaders ’cause we’ve gotta learn everything we can about motivating people – especially church people who work with volunteers.

Incentives/rewards as motivators? Here’s a quote:

As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance, but once the task called for ‘”even rudimentary cognitive skill,” a larger reward “led to poorer performance.”

Many studies have shown this to be true across cultural boundaries throughout the world. Here’s an example of one of them:

“The Candle Problem.” Here’s the scenario:

The behavioral scientist brings you into a room and gives you a candle, some matches, and some thumb tacks. He explains that your job is to attach the candle to the wall so the wax doesn’t drip onto the table.

candle01

Many people begin by trying to thumbtack the candle to the wall or melting the side of the candle to stick it to the wall. Neither will work. After about 5 minutes, most people figure out the solution.

Candle02

A scientist named Sam Glucksberg (Princeton) did a series of experiments using the candle problem. He told one group of participants that he was just timing them to establish “norms.” To another he offered a carrot, a reward for the top 25 participants with the best times.

Results? The group that was offered the reward averaged 3 and a half minutes longer. Incentives/Rewards actually stifle creativity. This study has also been replicated over and over for nearly 40 years.

Next, Glucksberg did the same experiment, but presented it in a slightly different way.

Candle03

This time the group who had been offered rewards kicked the tails of the others. Why?? It’s “no brainer” work. ‘Cause, with the thumb tacks out of the box, there was no “creativity” (well, little) involved. Incentives work very well for non-cognitive tasks, but for tasks requiring creativity. . .well, it’s a bad motivator and actually hinders performance.

Here’s the bottom line:

There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business (leadership) does.
Science knows:
1. Incentives/rewards only work in a narrow band of circumstances. (No brainer work)
2. “If then” rewards often destroy creativity.
3. The secret to high performance (motivation) isn’t carrots and sticks (rewards & punishments) but that unseen intrinsic drive – the drive to do things ’cause they matter.

OK – Here are my thoughts: As a church worker, this all makes sense. I can’t really offer our volunteers anything anyway. We may bake them cookies or something to show our appreciation, but we’re not exactly giving huge salaries or bonuses to them. Over the years, I’ve seen a few people volunteer out of wrong motivations – trying to watch their child, or get close to another volunteer, or maybe they just want to feel good about themselves. Whatever the case, those people don’t ever last very long. The people who are the greatest assets to our programs and ministries are those who are intrinsically motivated – those people who really believe in what we’re doing and want to make a difference in the lives of others. Those kinds of volunteers are consistent. They will work into wee hours of the morning trying to get things “just right.” They aren’t “high-maintenance” volunteers. They come to me with new ideas and like to tell me what they’re going to do rather than asking me about all the details of how to get it all done. These are the kinds of people I love to work with. They understand our goals and create new ways of reaching them.

Another thought: What does our carrot and stick system do to our children? We like use this system all the time with them ($$ for grades, ice cream when the team wins, etc) but if these kinds of motivators stifle creativity. . .hmm. . .what hasn’t being created that might exist right now otherwise?

The modern church needs leaders – people who can create a new vision and lead others into a preferred future. Ministry is a creative calling made by the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth. If rewards and incentives break down creativity, we’ve gotta stop trying to motivate our people with them. We need all the creativity we can get. The Good News is that God’s creative Holy Spirit resides with us and within us. He’s just looking for a chance to come out of us.

If you’re interested you can check out the video that inspired these thoughts.

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