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<xTITLE>Forget the “Carrot and Stick” Approach!</xTITLE>

Forget the “Carrot and Stick” Approach!

by Phyllis Pollack
November 2018

PGP Mediation Blog by Phyllis G. Pollack

Phyllis  Pollack

Over the years, many people have told me that they sometimes use the “carrot and stick” approach as a negotiation tactic.  Wikipedia defines this tactic as

The phrase “carrot and stick” is a metaphor for the use of a combination of reward and punishment to induce a desired behavior. It is based on the idea that a cart driver might activate a reluctant horse by dangling a carrot in front of it and smacking it on the rear with a stick. The idea sometimes appears as a metaphor for the realist concept of ‘hard power‘. The carrot might be a promise of economic aid from one nation to another, the stick might be a threat of military action.

Recent studies indicate that this approach simply does not work. In “Science Confirms It: People Are Not Pets” appearing in the October 27, 2018 Sunday Review section of the New York Times, Alfie Kohn discusses the many studies over the years in what is often called “sugarcoated control.”  His conclusion is simple: “…when we are rewarded for doing something, we tend to lose interest in whatever we had to do to get the reward.” (Id.)

The author explains:

A number of studies, for example, have shown that children are apt to become less concerned about others’ well-being if they were rewarded earlier for helping or sharing. Students, meanwhile, become less excited about learning once they’ve been given a grade (or some other artificial inducement) for doing so. And even though the average American corporation resembles a giant Skinner box with a parking lot, no controlled study has ever, to the best of my knowledge, found a long-term enhancement in the quality of work as a result of any kind of incentive or pay-for-performance plan. (Id.)

Mr. Kohn notes that in one study, some of the participants were promised a reward if they successfully wrote a poem. The researchers found that these participants ended up being less creative and less interested in writing the poem than if they had been promised nothing. (Id.)

Further, newer research shows that this “carrot and stick” approach may backfire when participants are offered rewards “…for doing things that aren’t especially interesting, particularly if you watch to see what happens after the rewards stop coming.” (Id.)  The participants still put off doing the unappealing task despite being offered a reward for finishing early. Procrastination still occurred. (Id.)

And, this approach did not improve school attendance. Again, pupils were offered rewards for exemplary attendance.  While the pupils attended during the period in which the reward was at stake (i.e., the fall semester), they immediately returned to their old habits of not showing up for school in the spring semester. The “Carrot and Stick” approach either had no after effect or led to poorer attendance. (Id.)

Mr. Kohn opines that the reason for the failure of the Carrot and Stick approach to work is that people are not like pets; they do not sit, stay or roll over on command. Rather, each of us have minds of our own and will not follow an order just because it is given. (Id.)

So, while this approach may work temporarily, it will not have lasting effect and, may make things worse. (Id.) The better approach is to work with people to motivate them which will take time, effort and a lot of thought. (Id.)

But that is what integrative bargaining or negotiating is all about; finding a solution that meets the needs and interests of all concerned. And by addressing everyone’s needs and interests, a compromise can be reached which will be durable and long lasting; no carrots or sticks needed!

…. Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

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