The psychology of motivation applies to all of our behavior, from the way we tend to our physical needs to the uplifting inspiration we seek from our loftiest pursuits. Revolutionizing the study of motivation, University of Rochester psychologists Richard Deci and Edward Ryan introduced Self-Determination Theory (SDT) as a way to understand how we can get the most satisfaction out of various realms of behavior from jobs to relationships.
Some years ago, Deci and Ryan developed the theory to try to explain why it was that young children became less creative when teachers gave them tangible rewards for their artistic products. This discovery led to the concept of “motivation crowding out,” in which extrinsic (tangible) rewards crowd out the intrinsic (intangible). If you’re rewarded with money or grades for activities that you find inherently pleasurable, then eventually those activities feel like a job. The result is that you lose your creative edge. Perhaps you’ve felt this way when you take one of your prized products of a hobby and enter it into a competition. Instead of taking pride in your craft, you worry about whether it will win first place. If you keep it up, you may find that you’re engaging in the hobby just to compete instead of just enjoying the activity itself.
The obvious and unfortunate corollary of motivation crowding out for the workplace is that if people are theoretically less creative when they get paid for their work, then we don’t need to pay them, or not pay them as much. Clearly, this is not a desirable interpretation of the theory from the worker’s point of view (though it may be for owners and managers). In order to accommodate the notion that people actually need to be paid for their work, yet still want to enjoy it intrinsically, SDT had to change. Instead of proposing that people are less creative when they get paid, SDT now proposes that the more internally driven and the more sense of control you have over your work and work conditions, the more enjoyment you’ll derive through intrinsic rewards. To feel intrinsically motivated, you need to feel that your work satisfies your needs for autonomy, feelings of competence, and relatedness or sense of personal meaning.
SDT continues to be refined and revised through continued research. Most recently, Norwegian Business School researchers Anders Dysvik and Bard Kuvaas followed over 1400 employees from three large service organizations in Norway for a 10-month period. At the beginning of the period, Dysvik and Kuvaas asked the employees to rate their degree of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and the amount of effort they felt they were putting into their work. Ten months later they rated themselves again. Theoretically, the more intrinsically motivated the employees felt, the more effort they should feel like putting into their work.
As important as intrinsic-extrinsic motivation is, though, Dysvik and Kuvaas believed that this factor wasn’t enough to explain the degree of work effort that employees wanted to put into their jobs. According to the achievement goal approach (AGA), work motivation should also take into account whether you seek to master the skills needed for your job or whether you are trying to meet someone else’s criteria for good performance. Additionally, you may be oriented toward gaining new skills (approach) or be worried that you’re losing the skills you have (avoidance). AGA theory therefore proposes that there are four types of individuals who differ according to this mastery-performance dimension. See how you think you fit into these 4 types:
- Mastery approach: You want to master the tasks of your job and therefore are constantly comparing how you’re doing with how you did in the past to see if you’re improving.
- Mastery avoidance: You are afraid that you’re losing your skills and so feel compelled to monitor your performance.
- Performance approach: You want to master your job tasks but only so you look good in comparison to others.
- Performance avoidance: You are concerned that you’ll fail and look incompetent to others.
Although the AGA framework applies to work, you can also see how it might apply to your leisure activities, your job tasks in the home, or your school performance.
Which combination do you think would produce the greatest work effort? Would you feel most inclined to try to improve because you like the work (intrinsic) and therefore constantly want to better yourself? Or are you worried that you’re losing your edge and therefore be on the lookout to prevent any loss of face, or salary? Dysvik and Kuvaas believed that the combination of intrinsic motivation and a mastery approach goal orientation would produce the highest degree of work effort among the employees they studied.
Across the 10-month period, as they had expected, Dysvik and Kuvaas found that, indeed, the combination of high intrinsic motivation and a mastery approach goal orientation produced the greatest increases in work effort over time. However, they also found the puzzling result that the degree of extrinsic motivation was positively related to work effort in people who were oriented to mastery avoidance (not wanting to lose their own skills). In other words, those workers who were concerned about losing their edge at work seemed to be more oriented toward meeting the job’s work requirements and this fed their higher work effort. It’s possible that, given their worries about their job performance, they decided to focus more on extrinsic features of the job such as meeting the expectations of their bosses. They may be running scared, and as a result, measure themselves against external rewards instead of their own internal criteria of performance.
The upshot of the study is that by living up to your own internal standards, not comparing yourself against others, and by finding ways to express yourself through your job you will feel more engaged and self-motivated. Believing that you’re constantly needing to live up to someone else’s standards will deplete your inner drive and ultimately make you less productive.
We can also project the study’s findings into other productive endeavors, not just work. If you’re a student, how much do you focus on learning the content of what you’re studying vs. thinking only about your grades? Do you measure your own progress according to your own internal standards, or are you only interested in finding out how you compare to the others in your class? Similarly, in your leisure or home pursuits, taking pride in what you’re doing and feeling that you’re gaining in competence can make even the mundane tasks around the house become more engaging.
This particular study didn’t look at mental health outcomes of work engagement, but it’s not a wild stretch to assume that the more vitally you feel involved in your work (or school or home), the more fulfilled you can become. Start now to search for those inner sources of gratification and your sense of mastery, competence and fulfillment will only continue to grow.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013
Dysvik, A., & Kuvaas, B. (2013). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation as predictors of work effort: The moderating role of achievement goals. British Journal of Social Psychology, 52, 412-430.