I've had a lot of very important matters to deal with lately, but my mind keeps wandering. I have a man on my mind. He is short and bald but he made a big impression on me. Not immediately, but over the weeks I saw him—on television—a reality TV show, at that! Yes, I know, I know, but bear with me.
I certainly hadn't intended to watch this particular television series but somehow, when I found it while channel-hopping one evening, I was drawn in and ended up watching it every week until it finished.
The scenario? Twelve young men picked for their lack of motivation and bone idle tendencies—to call them “sad losers” would be being charitable—were divided into two teams of equal fitness and put through extreme military training, competing against each other in trials.
The beginning of the series set the scene: the two teams were driven, with bags over their heads, to two locations in the Breacon Beacons. Upon arrival, one team, the Carrots, were welcomed to their camp with a cup of tea and a game of frisbee, followed by group drumming around the campfire and meditation. The other team, the Sticks, were bellowed at and insulted, forced to don army uniform, had their heads shaved, and were each given a number instead of a name.
The Carrots were under the command of Ben Clayton-Jolly, an ex-SAS man under instructions to use only positive reinforcement—praise, rewards, encouragement and team-building—in his training. They also had the benefit (if you like that sort of thing) of extra psychological support from a softly-spoken, highly sensitive, New Age hippy fellow with a penchant for bongo drumming, dancing naked round the camp fire, communing with nature, poetry, tinkling bells and blowing a conch shell and suchlike. The Carrot team lived in a cosy tepee, wore their own clothes, and meditated for 20 minutes every morning. The Carrots were to be built up and nurtured, soothed and encouraged.
The other team, the Sticks, were the unlucky ones. The Stick team leader, the aforementioned short, bald man, Sergeant Major Roberts, and his sidekick, Staff, were under strict instructions to use only the stick—lots of bellowing, threats, punishments and endless pressups. On no account could the Stick team leaders ever praise the men or express satisfaction, no matter how well the team might do. The Sticks were given no home comforts and no team building.
When the Sticks lost a trial against the Carrots, the punishment was severe. When the Carrots lost, they received team-building pep talks and commiseration from their leader and his sidekick. When the Carrots won, they were rewarded with spending money, hot showers and celebratory dinners. When the Sticks won—well, they were thankful that they hadn't lost!
The programme's ostensible purpose was to determine which method would produce better results: the carrot or the stick, but really it was just a bit of fun—light entertainment appealing to the sadomasochist in all of us.
At any rate, it was clearly never possible to determine which method would produce better results. For a start, several of the Carrots found the naked drum-beating and suchlike a little embarrassing and silly. In fact, instead of finding these New Age activities rewarding as they were supposed to, they found them intolerable and refused to do them. This wounded the New Age side-kick of the Carrot team leader so much that he was unable to remain positive all the time. And when hurt, he lashed out like a little boy, using words as weapons against those he was supposed to be supporting and rewarding. So much for the rule that they should use only positive reinforcement!
At the beginning of the training, the Stick team members were completely unaware of the nature of the game they were playing, and they were naturally upset and rebellious. Morale was very low, and it seemed as though some of them might walk away. They clearly considered their team leader and his sidekick to be hateful monsters.
But soon, thanks to the Carrots jeering at them as they were being harshly treated, the Sticks cottoned on to the nature of the game. At that point, they realised that their leader and his corporal were not speaking (or rather, shouting) from the heart, but merely doing what the game required. The Stick team members no longer took all the shouted insults, punishments and reprimands personally. They were no longer misled by the overt form of the way they were being treated. From that moment, they interpreted everything positively, and they pulled together and decided to win the game.
The Stick team leader made valiant efforts to use only the stick, but he clearly felt very troubled by the prohibition against expressing any praise or satisfaction. He said that in the British Army, they use a combination of carrot and stick, never just the stick.
As he watched his team transform from a bunch of utterly useless louts into a disciplined, effective team, he nevertheless obeyed the rules of the game: his words and tone of voice were only ever peremptory and punitive. But his eyes told a different story. In his eyes, I saw growing respect and eventually even love for his team. They must have seen it too. At one point, he was so moved by how hard his team had worked that I thought he was going to cry. By the end of the game, there was an air of mutual and almost reverential respect and warmth between Sergeant Major Roberts and his men.
At one point, when the Sticks had lost one of the trials against the Carrots, the punishment was to carry around a huge, immensely heavy tree trunk. They had to remain in contact with the tree trunk even when they were asleep. The Carrots, having had a celebratory meal around the camp fire, drunkenly crept over to the Stick camp and took video film purporting to show that the Stick team members were not in contact with the tree trunk while they were asleep.
The next morning the Carrots summoned the Stick team leader to look at the video film. When he realised why he had been called over, he was absolutely furious and would not watch the film or hear anything said against his men. He expressed his outrage very loudly and intemperately. In that moment, it seemed as though he explosively released all the tension he had been feeling by virtue of his discomfort with using only the stick. His men (and half the county) must have heard everything.
The Sticks won the game. The Carrots could never quite get it together. They never formed a real team, and they never became disciplined enough. There was back-biting and bitching and verbal bullying and, in some cases, no will to win.
Why am I mentioning this reality TV series? It is not because I think it really tells us that the stick is more effective than the carrot—it does not tell us that at all. Had the Sticks not been able to interpret their leaders' treatment of them positively, they would have fallen apart. No, what this series actually showed is that respect and warmth can be conveyed in subtle ways, even in imposing the most extreme military discipline, even when shouting in the harshest tones, and even during the most painful physical punishments. The way that tough barking Stick leader's eyes gave him away was heart-melting.
Similarly, when I was at school, there was a particularly gruff, stern, strict, commanding, curmudgeonly master who was nearing retirement and was very old-fashioned in the way he treated us. Most of my classmates were terrified of him and hated him, but I looked into his eyes and saw his soul. I could tell that he had a kind heart and I found him adorable. My classmates could never understand why I smiled so warmly at him—or why I invited him to my birthday party—or why he came. Perhaps they missed the tiny flicker of a smile on his face whenever he tried to chastise me. But I didn't.
It is easy to be misled by the obvious, by the overt form of an interaction, by how things look. I know I have often been—just like many can't imagine why any woman would want to be in a Taken In Hand relationship. But I try to remind myself that to see what is really going on—to understand the deeper quality of the interaction or the relationship—you have to look beneath the surface, beyond the overt form, and to the psychological substance. The form can sometimes look good, kind, gentle, nice—while the psychological substance is torture—as the Carrot team would tell you. Or it can look deceptively alarming, as it did in the case of the Stick team training. The form does not tell you what is in the heart. But sometimes the eyes can.