Have you ever heard this phrase uttered by leadership before?
I have, and I cringe every time I hear it.
According to wordhistories.com, "This phrase alludes to the method of tempting a donkey to move forward by dangling a carrot before it, and beating it with a stick if it refuses."
So this phrase basically puts people on the same level as animals - denoting that they can be owned and motivated with food and punishment. It also denotes that they have the same simple needs as animals. (Hey fellow animal lovers - I know we can argue that animals are more complicated than that and should be treated better, but I'm looking at this from the context of how people have historically treated animals as "lesser" beings and as property.)
It's a scary phrase because it insinuates that people are property and are less intelligent than their leaders. Employees may not see the big picture that leaders have been privileged to see in the organization, but leaders often forget the picture that workers see on a daily basis.
When leaders use this phrase to try to control their employees, it takes away from the notion that these employees are human beings and not property. They need to be helped to do well, not metaphorically beaten in the hopes that they'll eventually fall in line.
Of course, punishment is merited when someone does something truly heinous, like sexually harass a co-worker or abuse a client. But if employees feel like you're treating them like less than human or punishing them for not doing the things that their organizational climate makes nearly impossible, the "carrots" are just an insult and the punishment makes leadership appear unethical and incompetent. When a worker feels like s/he can't move forward.... or has a hard time doing so.... it's like whipping a donkey for not being able to walk through a wall. In this scenario, leadership is left wondering why their "carrot" isn't working while workers form a very negative perception of their leadership.
And it happens way too often in our current organizational climate.