Extrinsic motivation is motivation which comes from outside ourselves. It comes in two flavors, pain, and pleasure or punishment and reward, aka. “The stick and the carrot.”
Once, some 50.000 years ago, man’s main driver was his own survival. Later in the age of industrialization, things started to become more complex. New extrinsic incentives arrived, sticks and carrots delivered by a third party.
Workers had to be motivated, and the strategy behind rewards (carrots) is that they reinforce desirable behavior. With the prospect of higher wages, workers would deliver more work in less time.
Punishment (sticks), by contrast, would prevent undesirable behavior. If a worker knows he is going to be dismissed when stealing from the workplace, he’s less likely to snatch anything.
Even today, the use of reward or punishment keeps being the main motivators companies use with their employees. But is there an alternative?
Luckily there is another type of force that drives us. When we find a job fulfilling, no further reward is necessary. One such example is Wikipedia, thousands of people contributed voluntarily to write and edit articles, without any material reward.
Until 1949 it was assumed that human and animal behavior was solely defined by inner drives and exterior motivation. Then Harry Harlowe, a professor of psychology, discovered that when Rhesus monkeys were given a mechanical puzzle, they worked out how it worked and completed it without any exterior incentives. They didn’t receive any food nor praise but completed the puzzle with great enjoyment nonetheless. Behavior like that is typical for us humans too.
Both the Wikipedia example and the Rhesus monkeys are not results of basic needs, rewards or sanctions. They are a result of intrinsic motivation.
People who are motivated intrinsically want to be able to dictate when and what they work on. They don’t need or expect to be rewarded because they do it for fun, they enjoy working voluntarily.
Counterintuitively, a high reward can be detrimental to performance
Rewards based on a task can backfire, take for example the scenario where mechanics receive a bonus if they carry out a certain number of repairs within a certain time frame. One would guess that this type of external incentive would motivate them to provide better results and generate higher customer satisfaction.
But instead what happens is that the mechanics’ main goal becomes to achieve a target number of repairs, which means they even are inclined to carry out unnecessary repairs. Something which annoys the customers and thus damages the company as a result. In this case, the motivator failed, because instead of helping the company to create better customer satisfaction, it had the opposite effect.
In one experiment, participants were asked to fasten a candle to a wall. This puzzle requires creative thinking. Some participants were promised money for solving the problem quickly, others not. But instead of motivating them, the incentives clouded their creative thinking. They became less resourceful. The incentive resulted in longer necessary time to solve the task compared to participants who weren’t promised a reward.
In an agility test in India, participants were promised various sums of money for hitting targets with tennis balls. Guess what happened? You guessed it, instead of performing better, those who were promised the most money performed the worst. The high financial incentives put higher pressure on them, which not only failed to improve their performance but inhibited it.
Stick and carrots are good for routine tasks, but not for more demanding jobs
So now that we know that punishment and reward aren’t always resourceful, the next question is, when should we use extrinsic motivation and when shouldn’t we? Extrinsic motivation can be effective as an incentive in tasks which don’t require complex mental activity such as creativity. For example routine tasks, such as packing bags in a supermarket.
If work is mentally demanding the stick-and-carrot motivation can lead to a decline in performance.
Extrinsic motivation often destroys Intrinsic motivation
As children, we are highly intrinsically motivated. We have a great curiosity to figure things out, to attempt to understand the world. We find great pleasure in learning about anything in our surroundings.
As we grow up, however, we gradually lose this fascination. Mainly because we live in a society so heavily based on extrinsic motivation. This isn’t just conjecture. One experiment perfectly demonstrated this.
In a nursery experiment children were asked to produce a drawing. Some children were promised a certificate and others were not. Later, when both groups were set to drawing again without promised reward this time, the children who had previously received a certificate no longer wanted to draw. Whereas those who hadn’t received any special recognition previously, did.
What happened was that the extrinsic motivation (promised recognition with a certificate) had destroyed their intrinsic motivation. They now had learned to draw on a reward.
The lesson here is that our society’s extrinsic motivation often suffocate our inner motivation. We are trained so that soon the only thing we can see is praise, high grades, and good paychecks. Losing our internal pleasure to find things out.
The flow state achieved by striving for perfection
50% of employees in the US report feeling uncommitted to their job, fulfilling their jobs with a lack of passion. That is most likely due to unfulfilling motivators. Often people do their work out of pure necessity.
People who are passionate about their work often strive for perfection because it fascinates them. That striving allows them to stand out in the pursuit of their goal.
Those people often get into a flow state while performing their task. Creative people like painters can happily work for hours at their pictures. Computer Scientists may lose the sense of time while working on an algorithm. The same for programmers working on a code.
Some people, those with a fixed mindset, are difficult to motivate because they think their skills are written in stone. Those with a growth mindset, know they can improve their skills and thus, create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Using meaning instead of extrinsic motivation creates greater life satisfaction
What is it that motivates people? Young people are often motivated by extrinsic values such as becoming rich and famous. Whereas later in life people often realize that their accomplishments didn’t make them happy.
Psychologists investigated the quest for meaning in lives of young people. They asked graduates from the University of Rochester about their main aim in life.
Some named extrinsic factors such as fame and fortune, while others specified meaningful-intrinsically motivated goals such as helping others.
What group do you think will be more successful?
Years later the researchers interviewed the same participants to find out how things had worked for them. Students with profit goals, even despite having achieved positions as managers in large firms, often suffered from depression and anxiety. They did so more often frequently than students who had stated meaningful goals. Those students reported greater happiness and rarely suffered from psychological ailments.
Further studies support similar findings. Workers who work at companies which allow a portion of the budget to be donated to charitable causes improve their welfare. Doctors are noticeable less drained if they are able to talk to their patients and do outreach service on one day per week.
People who pursue meaning instead of profit, people who want to give something back to society, acquire personal strength and more motivation and happiness than money could ever be.
Self-determination for employees makes companies more successful
Some companies have already explored the power of self-determination with their employees. Instead of monitoring them constantly and keeping them on a tight rein, they either relax control or let completely go of the reins.
In Google for example, employees can spend 20% of their time developing innovative ideas. In those moments great hits such as Gmail and Google news have been created. Resulting in big rewards for the company.
Zappos is another company which applies self-determination with success. Zappos is not a typical call-center where the staff gets bored and wore out because of endless hours of telephone calls, resulting in a 35% turnover. In Zappos, employees are allowed to work from home with no managerial pressure and can lead conversations in their own style. As a result, they are highly motivated, remaining with the company longer, and their customer service is also noticeable better than the average.
The company Meddius also uses self-determination as a source of motivation. Everyone’s goal is simply to complete their tasks within a certain time frame. The management has set aside office hours and instead workers are allowed to come and go whenever they want. They still can make it to their children’s football games. As a result, they are much more motivated at their work.
The importance of a good team
Another big factor in motivation is the quality of the team. At Whole Foods, workers as well as the personnel managers decide on new employees. At W.L Gore & Partner, those willing to lead the team have to find people willing to work with them.
We see the common pattern here. We are far more dedicated when we can self-determinate. Employees who are given more freedom are less declined to burn out and develop a greater potential for achievement, resulting in more success for the company.
Upgrade to intrinsic motivation
So how can a company upgrade its motivation strategy? Following a few simple steps can result great achievement. Each individual should feel and know that their actions are meaningful. Meaning can be given by linking their work to donations and social involvement. Employees will work with a good feeling that they are having a positive impact on others as a result. Their tasks should challenge their abilities and stimulate them, but without being so complicated that they are demotivating.
If you want your employees to attain a higher commitment and dedication, you should upgrade your management to promote self-determination, perfection and meaningful goals. Passion and dedication trump rewards and sanctions in the long term.
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Also published on Medium.