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When Love Is the Driving Force in Work

New research sheds light on the debate over love versus money as a motivator.

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In a classic set of studies on motivation beginning in the 1980s, University of Rochester psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan (e.g. Deci & Ryan, 1980) shook up the worlds of education and business alike by proposing that paying people to improve their performance would only worsen their motivation, as well as their productivity. Their approach gradually morphed into what would be called self-determination theory (SDT), a model proposing that people do better work when they’re internally rather than externally driven, but that they obviously still need a salary. Acknowledging that most people can’t or don’t want to work for free, Deci and Ryan instead showed that it was the degree of self-control (or determination) that influences productivity and ultimately satisfaction at work. If you feel that you’re “the boss of you,” at least to the extent possible at your job, you’ll feel more fired up to do your job, and your work product will reflect this greater passion.

Over the past several decades, SDT has received widespread support in a range of areas well beyond the workplace. BI Norwegian Business School’s Bård Kuvaas and colleagues note that in particular, “In the last 10 years, intrinsic motivation — or motivation without money — has become a fashionable topic...authors have alleged that intrinsic motivation is linked to various positive outcomes such as work engagement, task identification, positive affect, and employee productivity” (p. 245). Intrinsic motivation is the desire to perform an activity for its own sake, and extrinsic motivation is the desire to perform an activity to attain positive results or avoid negative consequences. A question with somewhat political implications, as the authors observe, is whether both types of motivation can operate in sync, or whether one “crowds out” the other. If you get paid too much, in other words, will you feel less joy from your job?

This question is difficult to answer from existing research which, somewhat surprisingly, typically doesn’t include studies in which both types of motivation are assessed at the same time. The Norwegian researchers sampled gas station employees, finance-sector trade union members, employees in a medical technology organization, and those in a finance industry organization. In two of their three studies, participants were measured at the same time, and in the third, a three-week period elapsed between testings to see whether testing participants all at once might have biased the findings.

In all cases, both workers and their supervisors participated; the total number of participants was approximately 6,000. The measures predicted by motivation included burnout (“I have no energy for going to work in the morning”), turnover intention (“I often think about quitting my present job”), and commitment to the organization in terms of effect (“I really feel as if this organization’s problems are my own”), intent to continue (“Right now, staying with my organization is a matter of necessity as much as desire”), and degree of work-family conflict (“On the job, I have so much work to do that it takes time away from my personal interests”). Additionally, the researchers controlled for length of employment, gender, education, pay level, and managerial responsibility. Supervisors rated their employees on work performance (“He/she puts a great deal of effort into carrying out his/her job”).

With this background in mind, see how you would score on the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation items. If you aren’t currently employed, answer the questions in terms of your last job or of the kind of work you’re doing now (such as housework or volunteer work). Rate each item from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree):

Intrinsic motivation:

1. The tasks that I do at work represent a driving power in my job.

2. The tasks that I do at work are enjoyable.

3. My job is meaningful.

4. My job is very exciting.

5. My job is so interesting that it is a motivation in itself.

6. Sometimes I become so inspired by my job that I forget everything else around me.

Extrinsic motivation:

1. If I am supposed to put in extra effort in my job, I need to get extra pay.

2. It is important for me to have an external incentive to strive for in order to do a good job.

3. External incentives such as bonuses and provisions are essential for how well I perform my job.

4. If I had been offered better pay, I would have done a better job.

If you scored at just over an average of three points for each intrinsic item and just under three for the extrinsic, then you’re close to where those in the sample had scored. It was rare for participants to score at the extremes of complete agreement or disagreement. More telling, however, was the extent of the relationship between the two types of motivation and the various job outcome measures.

Across all three studies, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation were negatively related. Moreover, people scoring high on intrinsic motivation performed better and felt better about their companies, and were less likely to experience work-family conflict, a desire to leave the company, or burnout. Conversely, extrinsic motivation had negative or no relationships to positive outcomes, but, worse, was more likely to be associated with negative outcomes. In other words, love trumps money when it comes to workplace motivation.

The authors, working from a behavioral economics perspective, maintain that their findings support the original propositions of SDT. This interpretation could lead back to the less than tenable argument that pay doesn’t matter to worker satisfaction, but the authors believe there’s a way out of this conundrum. People will work harder for extrinsic rewards only when the work is truly boring and mindless, and when there's a direct connection between how much they work and how much they get paid. As the authors conclude, “extrinsic motivation can be a potent motivator where there is little potential for intrinsic motivation” and when, additionally, work output can be easily quantified (p. 253). One possible reason for extrinsic motivation’s negative relationship to work commitment and productivity is that the emphasis on rewards by an employer provides a “signal” that the work is indeed tedious and requires extrinsic motivation in order to be successfully completed.

Love, in the form of inherent interest, therefore seems to be the driving force in truly satisfying work, and moreover, will get you through the tough times of getting up early or having to give up some of your personal life. Yes, you need to be paid (unless it is volunteer work or work around the home). However, what is really going to bring you the greatest gratification will be the job’s ability to allow you to express your true identity, skills, and values. Decide whether it’s love or money that you want, and if it’s love, you can be reassured that your long-term fulfillment, if not your wallet, will be the winner.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2017


Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1980). Self-determination theory: When mind mediates behavior. Journal of Mind And Behavior, 1(1), 33-43.

Kuvaas, B., Buch, R., Weibel, A., Dysvik, A., & Nerstad, C. L. (2017). Do intrinsic and extrinsic motivation relate differently to employee outcomes?. Journal of Economic Psychology, 61244-258. doi:10.1016/j.joep.2017.05.004