Reward or Punishment?

Carrot or stick?Which works best in compelling behaviour of your subordinates: the carrot or the stick? Machiavelli wrote in Chapter 17 that a Prince who cannot be both loved and feared, is more effective if he chooses to be feared rather than loved. Use the stick, he tells us.

And science has shown that this advice was probably correct. In a story posted on Science Daily,

A simple experiment suggests that punishments are more likely to influence behavior than rewards. The results stem from a study involving 88 students at a university.

In fact, the study found that punishment was two to three times more effective in getting results than giving rewards. Jan Kubanek, PhD, a researcher in anatomy and neurobiology is quoted as saying about the results:

…our study suggests that negative feedback may be more effective than positive feedback at modifying behavior. Our study showed that such feedback does not have to be harsh, since it appears that we tend to react in the same manner to any amount of negative feedback. From an evolutionary perspective, people tend to avoid punishments or dangerous situations. Rewards, on the other hand, have less of a life-threatening impact.

Harsh is, of course, relative and in Machiavelli’s day all forms of punishment were much harsher than those we mete out today. Thomas More questioned leniency for crimes we consider minor today and counselled for harsh measures:

‘I would gladly know upon what reason it is that you think theft ought not to be punished by death: would you give way to it? or do you propose any other punishment that will be more useful to the public? for, since death does not restrain theft, if men thought their lives would be safe, what fear or force could restrain ill men? On the contrary, they would look on the mitigation of the punishment as an invitation to commit more crimes.’
Thomas More, Utopia, Book I

In those days, heads rolled considerably more often from their perch on the neck; today in the municipal or corporate world, such methods are frowned upon. Even simple defenestration is not accepted. Instead, we simply fire someone. But the symbolic effect is the same.

But you can’t fire everyone. Just a few. Make an example. Machiavelli wrote in Chapter 17 that,

“With a few exemplary executions, he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise, from which follow murders or robberies. These harm the whole people, while those executions he ordered offend only the individual.”

Bang a select few heads together, and the rest will be loyal to you – even grateful – because you didn’t do it to them, he says. Loyalty equates with obedience, and that equates with effectiveness. One cannot govern effectively without loyal subjects, so Machiavelli wasn’t adverse to putting the stick about ii order to ensure effective government. Set a few sterling examples for the rest and don’t fret too much about the fallout:

“So long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, a prince ought not to mind gaining the reputation for cruelty…”

What the study didn’t look at was the effect of punishment on creating dissent and distrust. CEOs and CAOs know that wielding the stick too much and too often causes murmurings of rebellion. That ‘united and loyal’ condition depends on smooth waters all the way down, and not turbulence broiling under the surface.

Radial political groups have often tried to cause the state to respond more and more violently to their actions because the more the state tries to repress them, the more oppressed the people become. And such oppression encourages more people to rebellion.

A CAO or CEO wielding the stick too heavily will cause the same among employees. CAOs might also incur the distrust and opposition of his or her political masters, which will often result in the CAO being curtailled or even sacked.

Machiavelli was well aware that fear can quickly turn to hatred, as more than one chief administrator has learned over the centuries. Consider the fate of Thomas Cromwell, who served as the CAO-equivalent to Henry VIII: eventually headless because he put the stick about his opponents so much he caused them to conspire – successfully – against him.

Machiavelli warned princes – and their modern analogues – to avoid becoming hated…

“… because he can endure very well being feared while he is not hated…”

An iron hand is only good to a point, and must be tempered with both wisdom and generosity. Unfortunately, leaders too often don’t balance their acts of cruelty with generosity and end up being hated. That’s fateful to both careers and reputations.

Machiavelli concluded that princes – CEOs, COOs and CAOs included – should focus on what they can control, not what lies in the domain of others. Don’t interfere with a department that’s working well under a manager, he suggests, because it will only bring enmity:

“Men love according as they please, and fear according to the will of the prince. A wise prince should establish himself on that which he controls, and not in that which others control. He must endeavour only to avoid being hated.”

I can think of some CAOs who might learn from that lesson.

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Ian Chadwick
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Author: Ian Chadwick

Semi-retired writer, editor, reviewer, media relations & communications consultant. Former municipal politician. Researcher. Ukulele and guitar player. Aficionado of Shakespeare, Horace, Chaucer, Cicero, and tequila. Curmudgeon and cynic. Lay historian. Godzilla and ERB fan. PC gamer. Avid reader. Skeptic. Website and WordPress tinkerer. Companion to one dog and three cats. Loving husband. Passionate about my small town. Perennially curious about everything. Blog:

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