Daniel Pink in his book “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, overturns the fallacy of carrot and stick approaches to human motivation. A big gulf exists, he says, between what science knows about motivation and what businesses and organizations do.

Pink states “… carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims. Mechanisms designed to increase motivation can dampen it. Tactics aimed at boosting creativity can reduce it. Programs to promote good deeds can make them disappear. Meanwhile, instead of restraining negative behavior, rewards and punishments often set it loose–and give rise to cheating, addiction, and dangerously myopic thinking.”

Prodding people with money is a bankrupt approach and establishes a culture of “if you do that, you get this”, which stifles imaginative thinking because individuals get locked in a defined mindset and standard way of accomplishing work to get the reward. This carrot and stick approach results in short-term thinking. “When institutions–families, schools, businesses, and athletic teams, for example–focus on the short-term and opt for controlling people’s behavior, they do considerable long term damage.” People forfeit some of their autonomy lose control of their efforts and limit the scope and depth of their thinking. It subtly promotes negative behavior — deception, shortcuts, and unethical conduct to get the carrot. Sounds like Wall Street and Capital Hill!

The dysfunctional residue left by carrots and sticks is evident in some urban and suburban school districts across the country, where test results and other data are “cooked” to produce the appearance of high-performance. The Texas education “miracle” used misleading dropout rates to bolster its claims. In DC, a highly touted high school turn-around was a deception. Pressure to get the numbers can lead to breaches of professional ethics.

The myth of the ‘take no prisoners’, micromanaging leader charging through schools, using derision and fear may make celebrity icons, but does nothing for creating a sustainable culture that nourishes people’s desire to reach important goals. They ignore the power of intrinsic motivation as found in Frederick Herzberg’s landmark motivation-hygiene study. In fact these ham-handed administrators destroy potential and motivation, not develop it, and confuse short-term movement based on fear with motivation. 

The charade of the President’s “race to the top” carrot and stick mentality works against local autonomy and creativity to address problems and find solutions. The federal government’s role should be limited to defining goals that inspire public school systems to achieve them. Americans have traditionally responded to higher order goals, particularly without the rigidity of centralized control. The last thing public schools need is mandates and regulations from Washington that stifle, stymie, and smother creativity and innovation.