What Is the Carrot Principle?

cfeneley's picture

At the end of this past school year, I had the opportunity to do a book study with the administrators in my District. We are a small district, only 1,200 students district-wide. We do several book studies throughout the course of the school year among the five of us.

The Carrot Principle, our final one of the year, was selected by my Superintendent, and rightly so. Like me, you may have experienced a challenging year with your faculty and staff. With increased accountability on teachers and more demands on their time, with fewer resources and funding to draw upon, I frequently heard a buzz among my staff of low morale and discouraging attitudes. For me, The Carrot Principle, put into perspective not only the importance of recognition for our hard working teams of teachers, but also exposed the ability that recognition has in accelerating growth and student achievement. What started as a simple personal interest in finding ways to recognize my staff for their efforts in and out of the classroom, became a drive to simultaneously and purposefully use recognition as a means of accelerating growth and delivering extraordinary results.

Below is a brief summary of the key components of the book that led me to change my perspective and practices regarding recognizing staff.

The Research: Simply put, recognition works. When employees know that they will be praised for their efforts, they are far more likely to work at producing results. And in the era of merit pay, not surprisingly, cash is not a primary motivator. Money comes and goes; employees forget where they spent it or what happened to it. Employees come into our organizations already knowing the salary they will earn for their work. It is the ongoing opportunities of appreciation that we create that make long lasting impacts on our staff, and ultimately on our results. Better yet, when recognition is considered effective, managers have lower turnover rates, better results, and are seen as trustworthy, strong goal setters, strong communicators, and more likely to hold employees accountable. Recognition accelerates a leader’s effectiveness. The authors refer to these as the Basic Four.

The Basic Four: As goal setters, great leaders help the organization succeed by getting everyone on board. They set an optimistic tone, are clear with the organization’s goals and progress. Maintaining an open communication style allows employees to do the best at what they do every day. Conversations that probe who we are and what is important engage the minds of all those on our staff. Building trust requires leaders to keep their word and commitments, own up to mistakes, take the ethical high road, and actively contribute to the success of the organization. I found significant clarity from a quote in the book from an interviewed employee who said, "When I make a mistake I'm recognized 100 percent of the time; when I do something great, I’m not recognized 99 percent of the time." Mistakes will always be made; holding your staff accountable includes celebrating the mistakes that were worth being made in light of the innovation and progress that accompanied them.

Acceleration: Recognition accelerates goal setting by rewarding those folks who are working the hardest at advancing the school’s vision. Recognition accelerates communication. When we seek out employees and individually compliment them on a job well done, we put our missions and visions into the heart of our organizations; our people. Recognition accelerates trust. People need to be needed. The moment that I publicly recognize an employee for a specific effort "their trust meter shoots off of the scale."

A Carrot Culture: The best types of recognition are personal and tailored to the individual employee. In chapter six, the authors write, "We need to keep finding those heroes and getting them to believe in what they can achieve for us." Building a carrot culture centers around engaging and deepening the satisfaction of your employee talking with each member about how they will make a difference, including talking about what is in it for them when they make a difference. People make decisions around what the outcome will be for them.

The Building Blocks include day-to-day recognition, recognition that goes above and beyond, career recognition, and celebrating special events. Set goals to interact with your staff members each day. Be specific when you recognize individual staff members.

Why not recognize? The authors list several fears that keep leaders from recognizing employees more often:

  • If I recognize one person the other will be jealous. Not true - people will work harder to receive the recognition that they see you bestow on others.
  • If I recognize people, I won’t be able to be consistent. As leaders, we need to recognize what we see and promote that employees are recognizing each other, as well, as peers.
  • If I recognize too much, it will lose meaning. You can never thank or appreciate people too much.
  • I do not know what to give people for their achievements. The authors dedicate an entire chapter to ideas for this. Check out chapter 10 when you read the book.
  • They get recognized when they get raises. Financial promises don't always pan out. People will not stay in a lousy job for the money. Everyone needs to be recognized.
  • Why would I recognize someone who is just doing their job? Recognizing folks pushes them to do their jobs better.

I hope you take time to put this book on your summer reading list and that you get as much out of it as I did.

The Carrot Principle: How the Best Managers Use Recognition to Engage Their People, Retain Talent, and Accelerate Performance by Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton (2009).