It's a truism of psychology that human beings are primarily motivated by 1) the pursuit of pleasure and 2) the avoidance of pain. Not surprisingly, most management strategies emphasize some combination of carrots and sticks.

As I explained in a previous column, the promise of more money (i.e. carrots) does not motivate people to work harder. At the same time, using threats and fear (i.e. sticks) as motivators may work short term, but quickly kills morale.

The problem with carrot/stick management techniques is that human beings are too complex to be encapsulated by such a ham-handed model of behavior. Humans are social animals, not individual automata who react predictably to simplistic applications of pain or pleasure.

What does motivate people? According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, simple peer pressure plays an outsized role in workplace motivation.

In the study, researchers tracked how well workers in a hospital adhered to new sanitization procedure after being paid bonuses if they followed the new rules. While the bonuses did work at first, compliance with the new procedure

"progressively trailed back to levels of performance as low or worse than prior to the initiative."

In other words, the bonus--the archetypal carrot--backfired.

A different group of employees had their names publicly posted on walls, and sent emails of praise when they followed the procedures and respectful reminders when they failed to do so. The study discovered that

"while monetary incentives generated a more pronounced improvement, it was short lived. On the other hand, peer pressure techniques generated a change in organizational behavior that persisted beyond the removal of the incentive."

When people feel a sense of belonging to a group of their peers, they tend to conform to the behavior of that group, especially if that behavior is tied to a goal or belief that's widely shared throughout the group.

Managers who want to motivate employees should focus less on simplistic carrots/stick methods and instead find ways to tie desired behaviors to the shared beliefs and goals of the group... and then make certain the behaviors are visible to everyone in the group.