Are You Using the Carrot and the Stick too often?

Carrot or the StickThis year I have been hearing a lot about Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why” and I wasn’t sure how I could apply anything to the technology department that I lead. I have concrete projects that have to get done and it isn’t really about why they get done, they just need to get done. But after starting the book and after seeing a video of Sinek on Ted.com I have a lot to think about and I actually stopped reading the book to process just the first part, “A World That Doesn’t Start With Why”.

The first section of the book hit home a huge reality to me: I rely upon the Carrot and the Stick to get technology related tasks done by staff in all departments.

If you don’t know what the Carrot and the Stick represent, its pretty simple. The Carrot is an award for a behavior. Sinek gives an example this as being the huge cash back incentives that some US automotive companies were giving to buyers. The Stick can often be identified as fear. Sinek gives many examples of this, one being the anti-drug campaign in the 80’s with the egg and the frying pan.

I was riding the recumbent bicycle and I almost dropped the book as I identified my actions according to what I was reading (a bad ah-ha! moment). I use the Carrot and the Stick almost all the time. Some have even say that I’ve master the art of manipulation because most staff don’t want to do the things that are right for the network.

My example started out simple. I wasn’t in a position of power when our Exchange server was slowing down because of huge accounts. Some staff had over 1GB of email in Exchange. Back then, Exchange was really only able to hold about 16GB of email so that represented a significant chunk of the available space in Exchange and the ramifications of having to expand Exchange included lots of dollar signs. After several emails asking for staff to maintain their Outlook accounts, I was stuck. I needed immediate results and the buy-in to my requests were being done by the staff who had the smallest email accounts. It was suggested to me that there needed to be some sort of reward for doing what was needed. 

Viola! Clean Up Your Outlook and Qualify for a Prize!  The staff member who makes the largest percentage change in their email account will win a $50 Gas Card and you had one week to clean. Immediate action was taken and the space that was critically needed started to appear as if I had waved a magic wand. That first contest there wasn’t a staff member who didn’t at least delete half of their items in Outlook and there were so many that reached the 90% decrease in size that I was walking on the high of success. It had worked!

But in less than a year, the agency had grown and acquired more staff which in turn meant Exchange was slowing down because of large accounts. There was no hesitation this time.  It was time for another contest!  The qualifications were adjusted after some complaints of the previous criteria and instead of one person being the possible winner, the percentage of decrease got you a predetermined amount of tickets for a drawing towards the $50 Gas Card. And to sweeten the pot, there were five additional “grab bag” prizes.  The contest went off without a hitch, but in less than six months, I was right back to planning the next contest and the realization that this cycle was just going to continue and become more frequent.

It was time for the Stick. The fear of the impact to the whole agency having problems with email wasn’t a factor. It only really mattered if the individual had problems with email. That was when I was approved to put on email quotas (i.e. if your mailbox is 500MB, you won’t be able to send or receive email). Almost immediately I had a list of staff that were qualified for larger mailbox sizes. So there were 75% of the staff that couldn’t get beyond 500MB but 25% could go up to 1GB. That worked for a bit until I got notification that there was about 10% of the 25% that shouldn’t have quotas at all. Then it was that the penalty was too stiff and negatively impacted voicemail so I was only allowed to block a staff member from sending email if they exceed their quota, but they can continue to receive email. Clearly, this Stick wasn’t working.

When I had a change in my boss and my position, one of the first things that we did was put an end to the “Outlook Contest”.  Our belief is that as an employee it is your responsibility to maintain email properly.  But the damage of the “Outlook Contest” would live on. Existing Staff, still to this day, hoard email to purge “when you have that contest again”.  New staff hear from the existing staff about the contest too.  I have even heard some staff say that like it when they exceed their email quota because then they can’t respond to email but they still get email – that it’s a bonus.

Oh-oh!   This was not what was intended.

At the beginning I got the effect that I needed: immediate action. Yet, I never followed up with why it was vital for staff to do this activity. The focus wasn’t on how all of the staff share the available space on Exchange and that one person’s large mailbox can negatively impact the entire agency and never once was the negative fiscal ramifications of having to increase Exchange’s capabilities were discussed. That critical dialog was omitted for immediate results.

It is a touchy situation to be in and now leaves me wondering how can I get out of it.  Sadly, the “Outlook Contest” hasn’t been the only type of contest that I’ve had to run to get things done for the wellbeing of the network.

I know that to shift away from the Carrot and the Stick is not going to be easy, especially for my technology department. Staff often complain that we talk geek but often our reasons for certain things are not very technical. They can be based off of fiscal decisions or regulations given to us by governmental agencies. Those things aren’t technical, but because the messenger is from the technology department, it’s geek.

I have to admit, I’m taking a break from the book after reading about the Golden Circle. I think I need to identify all of the ways that I have used the Carrot and Stick. Then I have to identify what is the true message that needs to get out there to staff.  Manipulation is easy, but inspiring is going to be hard.

So has anyone else used the Carrot and the Stick too often? Have you stopped using it? How have you shifted the focus? Or worse, anyone found out that they can’t stop using the Carrot and the Stick?

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