Carrot v Stick Approach

14 March 2014

On this day in history, Admiral John Byng (born 1704), the son of the 1st Viscount Torrington, George Byng, was executed in Portsmouth in 1757. He had been sent to relieve the British base at Menorca but after a short engagement with the enemy fleet, he made the decision that his forces were inadequate and retreated to Gibraltar. Instead of being praised for his actions which undoubtedly saved the lives of hundreds of his men, he was charged with neglect of duty at a court martial in Portsmouth. This carried a mandatory death sentence and Byng was found guilty and shot.

This story set me thinking about the carrot or stick approach”. I know that the idiom refers to a policy of offering a combination of rewards and punishment to induce behaviour but where did it stem from? What is the origin of this phrase in history?

I guess it is no great surprise that it relates to an animal…. In fact, the approach was apparently first used by owners of donkeys in order to keep their animals moving. Whenever the animal stopped, the rider used to dangle a raw carrot in front of the animal’s nose. And if the stubborn animal still refused to move, then guess what happened? The owner gave it a sound thrashing with a stick!

When you adopt the carrot and stick approach, you are getting someone to do what you want them to by rewarding them. You give them something valuable, something they want. If they fail to do what you want them to, then you punish them.

So, why do we not adopt the carrot more frequently than the stick in our everyday interactions? It would be so much better to say, ‘I would really appreciate it if you could….. and if you felt able to then I would …..’, rather than ‘If you don’t do ….., then….’.

In the next week, try to be positive with people you meet and/or work with – try to be the carrot dangler rather than the stick thrasher….. I wonder if those were census occupations in the 1800s? Must remember to look for those….

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