Of Carrots and Sticks: Rethinking Motivation

Jon Ann Lindsey
Jon Ann Lindsey
In Sales Motivation

Here’s a fact social scientists know that most sales managers don’t: Traditional sales rewards – carrots and sticks – aren’t as effective as you think.

Psychologists Karl Duncker and Sam Glucksberg proved this with an experiment called the “candle problem.”

In it, the subjects were led to a table with one candle, a box of thumbtacks, and matches. Their task was to attach the candle to the wall without allowing the wax to drip onto the table.

Some people attempted to thumbtack the candle onto the wall. No dice.

Others tried melting one side of the candle and adhere it to the wall itself — but that didn’t work either.

Eventually, after about 5–10 minutes, most people figured out the solution: dump the thumbtacks out of the box, place the candle into the box, then use the tacks to stick the box onto the wall.

Here’s where the behavioral science of motivation comes in: 20 years later, Sam Glucksberg decides to revisit Duncker’s experiment. He sought to find out if incentives would drive people to solve the candle problem faster.

He split participants into 2 groups: one group was timed to establish norms and averages. To the second group, he offered a cash reward. Whomever had the fastest time in the second group would win $20.

So how much faster did the second group — the incentivized group — solve the problem?

On average, 3.5 minutes longer.

Dan Pink explains this phenomenon behind the science of human motivation. He asserts: “There’s a mismatch between what science knows, and what business does. When cash incentives are offered in this type of problem-solving, it dulls the brain and blocks creativity.” (Ted Talks, The Puzzle of Motivation)

When the thumbtacks and the box are presented as two separate entities, the incentivized group blows the non-incentivized group out of the water. But why?

“Because when the tacks are out of the box, it’s pretty easy, isn’t it?” Pink explains. “Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus. For tasks like this, where you see the goal in front of you, rewards work.”

This is exactly why Xactly’s software includes a “Show Me the Money” button. When you give your reps visibility on how much they can earn, they’ll zoom right toward it. But that’s only if you’re incentivizing and motivating them under the right conditions.

If you provide:

  • a clear set of rules for healthy competition
  • visibility on goals/compensation
  • dashboards that estimate or show progress

… Then, and only then (with the goal in sight), will “if-then” rewards work.

The puzzle of motivation is one that we at Xactly are obsessed with.

Want more illumination on the subject? Here’s our own presentation on the Insights of Motivation. (We promise there aren’t any thumbtacks involved.)

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Of Carrots and Sticks: Rethinking Motivation