Carrot And Stick – Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Nature of Motivation

Carrot and Stick Motivation

Carrot and Stick Indoctrination

It’s been deeply ingrained in us for the longest time that if we want the people we lead to perform well, we dangle a reward in front of them (carrot) as an incentive, in hope that what’s good will be achieved and gets repeated.

Likewise, we put up a system of punishment (stick) in its various forms, in hope that what’s bad will be avoided and not get repeated.

This is the carrot and stick principle, which is very much extrinsic in nature. By whatever name we call it, it’s been practiced everywhere: education, workplace, sports, games, family and relationships.

Is motivation so simplistic? Does the carrot and stick motivation work well?

Why Don’t I Change?

I had wondered for the longest of time why my bad behaviors don’t change knowing full well of the sticks in place; in fact, they just reinforced the belief that I’m not good enough and not cut out to be who I want to be.

At the same time, I’m also deeply curious why monetary incentives don’t motivate me as much as it should. I mean, surely money is one of the biggest and most effective motivational factors, right? “Is there something wrong with me?” I used to wonder.

My innate thinking told me that there’s got to be something more, something deeper, something I couldn’t put my finger on, that drives us to do great and extraordinary things.

I recalled that there were times I could do some things quite effortlessly, not because they’re easy, but because they don’t feel like work.

The ‘Flow’

I have been an enthusiastic squash club player for many years now. Of course, everytime I get on the court, I play to win. I mean, surely nobody plays to lose, right? The reward may not usually be in material form like money or trophies, but pride is equally (if not more) tangible a reward. Losing face is to be avoided as much as possible. It’s still very much carrot and stick motivation; it’s still extrinsic in nature.

Curiously, there were times when I was playing I felt moments of ‘magic’ when I played for the love and joy of playing, and not so much for winning points. Unbelievable shots just flowed from my racket effortlessly. At moments like these, I felt time stood still, and the experience was so surreal, what a joy – I was in ‘the zone’.

Later I found that it’s called ‘Flow’. The now famous term was coined by the Hungarian psychology professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, which is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does (definition taken from Wikipedia).

The purpose of this post is not to elaborate too much on ‘Flow’ (I recommend the book ‘Flow: The Psychology Of Optimal Experience’ if you haven’t read it already).

For me, I found out that there was something much higher, more powerful than the desire to win – which is the process of learning and mastery, which brought deep engagement and immense satisfaction to me. And I wanted the freedom to do it on my own terms, not restricted by boundaries set by the carrots and sticks.

I longed for my inner drivers (intrinsic) to move me and dictate my motivation, and not by external forces. Deep down, I know this is much more fulfilling and rewarding in the long run. This applies to all areas of my life, not just in sports and games.

What Drives Us?

Two years ago, I came across Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us‘ which explained very well the intrinsic nature of motivation – what truly drives us.

Without reading Dan’s book, you can have a good grasp of his ‘Drive’ concept from his TED Talk video or the RSA ‘animated’ version below.



Intrinsic Motivation

From Dan Pink’s videos, you can see that there’s a big gap between what science knows and what people and businesses actually practice. And the carrot and stick motivation understanding is so outdated.

He suggested that the three essential elements of motivation are these:

1) Autonomy – the desire to self-direct our own lives.

2) Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters.

3) Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

With that I could understand much better why I do what I do, why I don’t, what really moves me, why I’m not motivated as much as I “should” by the external reward-punishment system in place.

In place of the carrot and stick principle, give meaning and purpose to our pursuits and journey of accomplishments.

Beyond the basic monetary/material reward system in place, allow yourself (and the people you lead) to have more autonomy, mastery and purpose, and watch what happens to your performance and overall happiness at work and life.

In coaching, many clients come with surface goals (extrinsic nature) at first. In the exploratory and clarifying stages, we help them to discover deeper meanings and significance of what they truly want and why.

It’s common that the clients’ end goal inevitably shifts to something else, often times something closer to their hearts during the coaching process. And in order to make lasting positive change in the clients, we have to let their actions be anchored and reinforced by intrinsic drivers, more than extrinsic ones.

carrot and stick 2 Carrot And Stick   Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Nature of Motivation

Replace ‘carrot and stick’ with deeper meaning for your work

Coaching Questions

1) Now that you see that motivation is deeper than just carrot and stick, what has changed in your thinking?

2) What new awareness has risen about the way you work and the people you lead?

3) How can you listen more to your intrinsic motivations and allow them to drive you?

4) How can you give more meaning to your work?

5) What is the bigger purpose that your work serves?

6) Beside autonomy, mastery and purpose, what could be your other intrinsic drivers?


10 life changing questions 3d cover 2 Carrot And Stick   Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Nature of Motivation

Are you asking the right questions that will change your life?

Download your FREE Report '10 Life-Changing Questions To Design The Future That You Want'.

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About HT Lee

Coach Hwai Tah, the founder of, is an Associate Certified Coach (ACC) with the International Coach Federation (ICF).

He stands in the gap of where organizations and individuals are and their extraordinary future and dreams. He engages leaders in thought-provoking process to accomplish big professional and personal goals.

Operating from his base in Malaysia and the surrounding region, Hwai Tah’s specialized areas of coaching includes performance, leadership, executive and life coaching.


  1. So, if I’m getting this right the aim is to deepen intrinsic motivation. I wondered for a long time if this is even possible or whether motivation is as many people think a fixed commodity, a trait rather than a state hence the old adage that you can take a horse to water but cant make it drink. I’m constantly wondering both a) is motivation really accessible to manipulation of any kind both internal (intrinsic) and external and b) if it is, what really effects it.
    Any ideas out there?

    • Thanks Alex. Instead of ‘deepening’ intrinsic motivation, I think it’s more useful to discover what’s already there, and link it to what you do. Remind yourself why you do what you do. Tie the meaning and purpose of what you do to the bigger picture.

  2. …a kind of getting back to motivational basics….yes, I agree.
    Thanks for the reply.

  3. Daniel Philips says:

    That article on coaching questions was great!
    I find myself coming to your website more and more often.

  4. Can you tell us more about this? I’d want to find out more details.

  5. Kathleen King says:

    Really great details about coaching models.
    I just sent this post to a bunch of my friends as I agree with most of what you’re saying here and the way you’ve presented it is awesome.


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