The Stick, the Carrot and the Hug

Dealing with power is part of being a project manager.  Most days, I find myself facing a situation where power is being used or applied to shift, change or influence the outcome and the course of my project.  Sometimes the power is being used on a particular team member from a more senior project stakeholder while other times the power is being used between two team members who are struggling to reach agreement on how to accomplish a project task.  Recognizing and dealing with the different types of power and power strategies both within and surrounding your project, your stakeholders and your team is a critical project management skill.

I recently read an excellent essay about power, written by Dr. Máire Dugan for the Beyond Intractability web site. In her essay, she steps through the three power strategies that people face as well as use, both in the workplace and at home.  I found myself thinking that these three strategies and their metaphor sum things up nicely when dealing with and exercising power on my projects.  The three power strategies are the stick, the carrot and the hug.  Let’s take a closer look at each metaphor and think about how it applies to our projects and our teams.

The Stick. When I think of someone exercising power in a more unfriendly over my project, I am usually thinking about that person using the stick, or coercive power. According to Dugan, Coercive power is based on superior strength or by using threats. Many times, I am faced with senior-level project stakeholders that possess the ability to withhold funds or use their legitimate “power of position” to make the project’s life more painful if they do not get their way.   As a project manager, I am not a big fan of the stick strategy.  As one of my former colleagues asked me once “Would you like a little duct tape to go with that stick?”  Not the most positive of conflict scenarios.

The Carrot.  This project manager is a much bigger fan of the carrot, or exchange, power strategy. Dugan describes the carrot strategy as “a much gentler type of power, one that relies on a variety of exchange and reward possibilities.”  This type of power exchange can often take the form of mutual back scratching, where one person helps out another person in exchange for a concession or assistance from the other person later on.  From a project perspective, this can be a much more effective power strategy than using the stick.  This strategy uses What’s In It For Me (WIIFM) to get conflicts on the table and dealt with, a good middle ground.

The Hug. There is nothing like a hug to get folks to feel like they are working together on something and moving as one in the same direction.  The hug strategy uses integrative, persuasive or collaborative power to resolve conflicts. Dugan points out that there can be many “ internalized reasons that people change their behavior in a direction that may be more desirable to themselves or someone else.” Collaborative power may use your project team’s loyalty to address conflict and get everyone moving forward in the same post-conflict direction.

These three power strategies and the metaphor of “stick, carrot and hug” are an excellent way to view addressing and resolving conflicts on your project team.  I really liked the metaphor and found it to be an excellent description of the three power strategies we are dealing with on our projects.  Stepping through the three power strategies relative to your projects and your team was prompted made me think of a great article I just read.  It’s part of Learning Tree’s “Management Insights” series and focuses on ways to motivate your technical teams. Power certainly comes into the equation here as well.  Check it out and tell me what you think!

Happy power recognition and conflict resolution if and when it is needed!

Susan Weese

Reference: Dugan, Máire A. “Power.” Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2003 <>.

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