Moving Beyond Carrots and Sticks for Sustainable System Change

“Carrot and stick performance management processes and the behaviorist approach upon which they are based are deeply flawed, and yet most of us start (and end) there, even in the most innovative organizations.” Annie McKee

When it comes to managing sustainable system change, incentives are listed as an important part of the equation to achieve lasting change. But what is meant by incentives? Do we need to pay everyone more? Well maybe…but it’s not that simple.

Offering incentives is necessary to help us continue through the Inclusive System Change Cycle where we practice new skills and mindsets and overcome the danger zone. 

Incentives include:

  • things that help to scaffold and/or bring continuity
  • things that we are interested in and that motivate us
  • things that link our work to a greater purpose or cause

One specific way to leverage the power of incentives during professional development is to capitalize upon the interests of the adult learner.

Aligning professional development with work that matters…with a purpose…fosters motivation, which in turn, serves as an incentive to move toward change

Providing incentives that go beyond pay and gold stars, invites adult learners to impact the things they care about.

Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, authors of “Peak Performance,” underscore the interconnectedness of purpose, motivation, and sustained effort: “Purpose fosters motivation; motivation lets us endure a greater perception of effort; and enduring a greater perception of effort often results in better performance.”

This mantra is echoed in Annie McKee's observations on sustainable change: “For complicated change and development, however, it is clear as day that people don’t sustain change when promised incentives like good assignments or a better office.”

McKee further highlights the pitfalls of conventional incentive structures, stating, “And when threatened or punished, they get downright ornery and behave really badly.” This emphasizes the limitations of relying solely on traditional incentives, which may lead to counterproductive behaviors.

By embracing purposeful incentives, tailored to individual motivations and aligned with a greater cause, we not only navigate the Inclusive System Change Cycle effectively but also cultivate a transformative culture that extends beyond routine rewards, driving sustained and meaningful progress in professional development.