Forget the “Carrot and Stick” Approach!

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.


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By |2018-10-31T17:31:55+00:00November 9th, 2018|Negotiation Strategy|0 Comments

About the Author:

Phyllis Pollack
Phyllis G. Pollack, Esq. the principal of PGP Mediation (, has been a mediator in Los Angeles, California since 2000. She has conducted over 1700 mediations. As an attorney with more than 35 years experience, she utilizes her diverse background to resolve business, commercial, international trade, real estate, employment and lemon law disputes at both the state and federal trial and state appellate court levels. Currently, she is the in­coming chair of State Bar of California’s ADR Committee. She has served on the board of the California Dispute Resolution Council (CDRC) (2012­2013), is a past president and past treasurer of the SCMA Education Foundation (2011­2013) and a past president (2010) of the Southern California Mediation Association (SCMA). Ms. Pollack received her BA degree in sociology in 1973 from Newcomb College of Tulane University and her JD degree from Tulane University School of Law in 1977. She is an active member of both the Louisiana and California bars. Pollack believes that it is never too late to mediate a dispute and recommends mediation over litigation as it allows the parties to decide their own solutions.