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Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation at Work

What's the real difference?

Source: Unsplash

When I was maybe 8 or 9 years old, I was playing in the basement of our house, and I found a duffle bag stuffed under a pile of other random stuff. The bag was full of plaques, trophies, and different awards that all had my dad’s name on them. They were all awards that my dad had won at some point in his job. Being the trophy-obsessed millennial that I was, I ran upstairs with the bag and asked him, “Dad, these are awesome. These are really cool plaques and awards. How come these are all packed away in the basement?”

He responded plainly: “They're not important anymore. So, I don't display them.”

What I didn't realize at the time was that my dad’s rejection of the duffle bag was basically the first rejection I had ever seen of extrinsic motivators at work. Companies around the world use plaques, trophies, or bonuses to try to get more out of their employees. They try to motivate them to work harder through what amounts to basic bribery. And when you ask executives about the strategy behind those compensation plans or performance contests, you realize that there is still not a lot of clarity around how or when to use extrinsic motivators to improve performance, and when leveraging intrinsic motivation would work better.

In this post, we’re going to provide some of that clarity. We’ll review what extrinsic and intrinsic motivators actually are, as well as how to use them properly … or perhaps better stated, we’ll review how to know when you can use them properly.

Defining the Terms

Many people think they know what extrinsic motivation really is.

They think it’s bonuses.

They think it’s recognition.

They think it’s award trips.

They think of all those trophies that end up in a duffle bag.

And those are all types of extrinsic motivators. But extrinsic motivation is a much broader category. Extrinsic motivation is any reason we do the work other than the joy of doing the work itself. Anything that we are promised for doing the work or anything that we get as a result of doing the work are all extrinsic motivators.

The easiest way to think about the word “extrinsic” is that it refers to the work itself. It’s often discussed relative to the person, but there are a lot of things we do without some kind of tangible reward that we’re still extrinsically motivated to do. You might be motivated to do the work because you like the result even when there is no bonus or trophy at the end. But that’s still a form of extrinsic motivation because what you’re seeking is still the result.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, refers to those activities you do because you enjoy the activity itself. It’s intrinsic to the task. It’s the love of the game. It’s the love of the work. You do the work because it is internally satisfying or because you enjoy the work. You would do it even if they didn’t pay you.

Hopefully, they pay you.

But you would do it even if they didn’t pay you to do the work because you enjoy doing it so much. You are intrinsically motivated to do it.

How to Leverage Extrinsic Motivation

Between the two, it would seem like using extrinsic motivation is really easy. We just dangle a carrot in front of somebody and magically they’ll do the work. We used extrinsic motivation to reinforce good behavior in our toddlers, how hard could it be to motivate grown professionals? (Sarcasm fully intended.) But not every extrinsic motivation scheme, not every incentive compensation plan that we draw up properly motivates people.

In fact, most do not. And largely for one of three reasons.

More than 50 years ago, psychologist Victor Vroom developed what he called expectancy theory to explain how extrinsic motivation works and to diagnose whether or not your plan is working properly. Based on his research, Vroom said that for an extrinsic motivator to actually motivate people, it needs to have three important elements:

  • Expectancy
  • Instrumentality
  • Valence

Those terms are a little academic, and fairly outdated, so let’s translate a bit.

Vroom said that in order for an award to work, employees first have to believe that an increase in effort will yield an increase in performance (expectancy). Second, employees have to believe that an increase in performance will be noticed and rewarded (instrumentality), And lastly, employees have to actually want the reward that is being promised (valence).

Seems easy enough. But many times, it’s not exactly clear that putting in longer hours or increasing focus will increase performance. In a knowledge work economy, it’s not as easy as “harder work equals more productivity.” If your work is highly interdependent and others aren’t also ramping up their effort, then your performance might stay the same.

Likewise, most knowledge workers don’t trust that an increase in performance will even be noticed. And if it will, when? During the annual performance appraisal seven months from now?

And it may seem like the last piece, valence, is easy. Everyone loves money. But that’s not always the case. Many studies show a diminished return on incentive compensation and employee performance or that employees have an outright desire for other forms of reward. One study suggested that software salespeople were willing to forgo almost $30,000 in bonuses for a gold star on their business card signifying they’d made “President’s Club.”

A one-size-fits-all bonus plan usually fits no one.

How to Leverage Intrinsic Motivation

So properly leveraging extrinsic motivation is hard. And as more leaders have begun to realize that, the conversation has shifted a tad into how to better leverage intrinsic motivation to bring out people’s best work.

Not so fast.

Intrinsic motivation is fairly difficult to leverage properly as well. In part because there’s not a lot you can do to increase someone’s intrinsic motivation. Either they enjoy the task at hand, or they don’t. But there are things we can do to shape the job itself that increase our chances of someone becoming intrinsically motivated by the tasks that make up the work.

In the mid-1970s, a group of researchers started focusing on work redesign and, based on the available research, developed a five-factor model of job characteristics that effected work outcomes (motivation being one of the most significant). Their Job Characteristics Model started with three core characteristics:

  • Skill variety
  • Task identity
  • Task significance

Skill variety is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the degree to which a job requires various different tasks, as opposed to one task repeated over and over again. Task identity is a bit less straightforward. It refers to the degree to which employees can see and identify a final outcome, as in whether employees can see how their tasks contribute to the finished product. Task significance is similar to task identity but refers to impact. It is the degree to which an employee can see how their work affects other people’s lives.

Those three core characteristics are multiplied or diminished by two other characteristics:

  • Autonomy
  • Feedback

Autonomy is the degree to which employees have the freedom to determine what they work on and also how they work on it. Feedback is the degree to which employees have knowledge of the result, either from receiving feedback from a manager or being able to easily track their own progress.

Taken together, the model predicts (and research supports) that the presence of those five characteristics make it more likely that employees will find their work intrinsically motivating. So, when leaders either can’t design an incentive compensation system, or find that the work doesn’t lend itself to extrinsic motivation, there are questions they can consider to find out if they can leverage job characteristics model to strengthen their people’s intrinsic motivation:

  • How can we provide people with more autonomy?
  • How can we put systems in place to increase feedback?
  • What can we do to increase the variety of tasks worked on?
  • How can we make sure people see the end result of their work?
  • How can we help people see that their work positively affects people?

And that last question might be the most important one. Because we covered the conventional wisdom earlier that you can’t really increase intrinsic motivation the way you can with an incentive compensation scheme that increases extrinsic motivation. But that may not be true after all.

The Significance of Task Significance

In the last 10 to 15 years, researchers have been studying the significance of task significance. Most recently, the psychologist Adam Grant has been studying the effect of a concept he calls prosocial motivation—which in many ways is an alternative take on task significance.

Prosocial motivation is a form of motivation that refers to how much we engage in tasks (even tasks that bore us or stress us out) because we can see its positive impact on others—we can see that its prosocial. Grant’s research suggests that the more people can see the prosocial effect of their work, the better the quality of their work. Importantly, this is the case even when nothing has changed. No additional training. No additional skill variety. Nothing other than seeing the positive impact of their work.

And that may be the biggest takeaway for leaders seeking to increase the motivation of their people. Maybe they don’t need to design a new extrinsic motivation scheme. Maybe they don’t need to redesign the work. Maybe they just need to make sure they’re leveraging prosocial motivation.

Maybe people just need a clear and concise answer to the question “Who are we helping?” or “Who are we fighting for?”

And if we do that, maybe it’s not a question of when we have to motivate people to work or when the work can motivate them.

Maybe we just let the “who” motivate everyone to get to work.

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