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It Doesn't Feel Like Work--the Power of Intrinsic Motivation

by Ross Smith on March 7, 2011


ross-smith's picture

It Doesn't Feel Like Work--the Power of Intrinsic Motivation

"It is amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit." - John Wooden

Rewards and punishments are often thought of in terms of "extrinsic" motivators--incentives that go beyond, or are greater than, the task itself and which are offered up by someone other than those performing the task. A child receives a piece of candy for sitting still or a salesman gets a trip to Hawaii for selling above quota. External motivation can often take the form of punishment or manipulation as well.

Most of us have to work to earn a living--with the evidence on display in that legendary contrivance known as a paycheck. There are many powerful inducements to show up and perform each and every day, whether you enjoy it or not, but the paycheck is often the most compelling.

In 1905, Howard Washington Odum wrote:

Well, you wake up in the mornin',
You hear the work bell ring,
And they march you to the table to see the same old thing.
Ain't no food upon the table, and no pork up in the pan.
But you better not complain, boy,
You get in trouble with the man.

On the contrary, we all have seen those intrinsically motivated people perform each of their tasks for the enjoyment or satisfaction of the task itself. (It's awe-inspiring--and sometimes jealousy-inducing.)

In "Social Influences on Creativity: The Effects of Contracted-For Rewards" (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, p383), Teresa Amabile suggests that "people are intrinsically motivated to engage in a particular task if they view their task engagement as motivated primarily by their own interest and involvement in the task".

Does a paycheck, salary bonus, raise, or promotion put more work in to work? Well, it sure seems like lavish raises, exotic vacations, those coveted employee-of-the-month parking spots, and massive bonuses would make work more fun, doesn't it? The research suggests otherwise: rewards, or worse, the threat of punishment actually make work less enjoyable and perhaps even reduce productivity. These extrinsic elements can make work feel like work.

People who are offered rewards tend to "...choose easier tasks, are less efficient in using the information available to solve novel problems, and tend to be answer oriented and more illogical in their problem solving strategies. They seem to work harder and produce activity, but the activity is of a lower quality, contains more errors, and is more stereotyped and less creative than the work of comparable non-rewarded subjects working on the same problem."

Perhaps a goal of the "take the work out of work" moonshot could be to shift from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic--to build teams of people who are self-motivated by the tasks themselves; inspired by the vision or mission of the organization, rather than by the promise of a paycheck, a bonus, or a raise. Confucius said, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life." (John Condry “Enemies of Exploration: Self-initiated vs. Other-initiated Learning” p. 471)

And in one of the perhaps all-time greatest testimonials to the power of intrinsic motivation, Theodore Roosevelt, in Paris in 1910, said:

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

So, as we move along the path away from extrinsic rewards towards intrinsic motivation, we begin with external regulation--performing a task to get a reward or to avoid a punishment.

As Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards, suggests:

"Sure, bribes and threats can produce temporary compliance. Offer a reward to adults for going to the gym, or to children for picking up a book, and it may work -- for a while. But they come to think of themselves as extrinsically motivated, so when the reward is no longer available there's no reason to continue. Indeed, they may wind up less interested in exercising or reading than they were before."

Let's survey a few recent submissions on the MiX and look for evidence that might support this idea that an increasing the level of intrinsic motivation in the workplace could help to take the work out of work.

How to start a movement in your company - Part 3 - Unstoppable
Q: What innovative approaches did you use?
A: I used an approach called "BASIC - Borrow Aggressively, Shamelessly, Implement, and Combine." Here is a list of those thought leaders who influenced our approach:

Daniel Pink --> motivate through providing independence and meaningful work. Marcus Buckingham --> Focus on who people are, and not on what they are not (strengths based approach). David Petraeus --> Counter-insurgency. Implementing a surge. Winning hearts and minds. Success based approach. Gary Hamel ---> Future of Management, particularly the W.L. Gore story of how project leaders create an "opt-in" model for project teams, thus ensuring the team's success.

Being a true learning company and being free of management: living the dream
The measure of success for us is that we work with exceptional people - both colleagues and clients - and on themes that deeply matter to us all as individuals. We set the direction, we take responsibility and we only have ourselves to learn from when things don't work. We are constantly challenged not as machines in a cog or parts of a process but as human beings - who we are and what matters to us. This is the greatest reward - to be in a space that is fulfilling, that invites us to grow, and a place in which we can lead our own journeys.

The Tube: IDEO Builds a Collaboration System That Inspires through Passion
Our model is based not on "compliance", which we have seen in many other companies, but on an opt-in model. Connections among people are made based on active collaboration but also by searching for people and ideas and by serendipity.

Choose your reality - create your future with empowerment, engagement, and psychological wellbeing
Management must take a step back from control in order to take a giant leap forward. We need to encourage initiative and innovation, and empower our people to become daily decision makers. Empowering leadership involves sharing power, with a view toward enhancing employees' motivation and investment in their work , gives scope for greater autonomy, and has roots in powerful issues such as intrinsic motivation, job design, participative decision making, social learning theory, and self-management . Empowering leadership tends to enhance the meaningfulness of work by aiding employees' understanding of the importance of their contributions to the organizational goals.

Give Employees Ownership and let them Participate
Super charge organizations by making employees owners, give them every bit of information that you can, teach them what it means. Then let them use their ownership and information to decide how their company should be run.

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elad-sherf's picture

Great post! Makes you think a lot about how we structures business and what are the first tools we usually think of and use... why are incentives so hard-wired into us as managers. We brought a disconnection between work and motivation all by ourselves... isn't it time we changed that?
This post made me think a lot. Thank you! Here are some more thoughts on this issue: