Researchers and businesses have long recognised the importance of understanding human motivation. You likely know that you behave according to a combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Researchers have now gathered evidence that helps us better understand the conditions under which one or the other type of motivation is best used.
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How you answer the question of what gets you out of bed in the morning points to the essence of motivation, or what gets you to “move.” Merriam-Webster Online defines “extrinsic” as “external to a thing, its essential nature, or its original character,” and defines “intrinsic” as “belonging to the essential nature or constitution of a thing.” From the perspective of motivation, the word "intrinsic" refers to immediate, self-generated consequences as opposed to physical or other-imposed consequences, considered "extrinsic."
In the business world, a performance bonus qualifies as one type of "extrinsic" motivation: if you do this, you will get that. Many corporations today spend millions designing extrinsic reward systems to motivate their employees to do better work. In addition to bonuses, managers may offer their employees ribbons or other prizes to motivate performance. This approach assumes that people will do better-quality work with the presence of an extrinsic motivator.
By contrast, inventing a new widget because you enjoy the process of solving a puzzle qualifies as one type of "intrinsic" motivation: if you do this, you will enjoy it. Intrinsic motivators include the experience of autonomy or being self-directed, the achievement of mastery and the choice of whom you work with. Unlike the if-then character of an extrinsically motivated work situation, in which you have to wait for the reward, intrinsically motivated work is its own reward. This approach assumes people will do better-quality work without the presence of an extrinsic motivator.
From the dawn of the industrial revolution, the problem of motivating employees to do the work required has been solved with extrinsic motivators, or the carrot-and-stick approach, as championed by 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Psychologists observed that extrinsic motivators work best when used to encourage mechanical behaviours requiring little creative thought--precisely the type of work required of 18th- and 19th-century employers.
For work requiring creativity, persistence or passion, psychologists discovered that extrinsic motivators can give us less of the behaviour we want, dampen creative thinking and crowd out ethical behaviour. In a series of ingeniously designed experiments, researchers found that payments, prizes or other extrinsic motivators caused the opposite of the behaviours one might expect. Even pursuits most of us would find enjoyable, like solving a crossword puzzle, were pursued less frequently when researchers introduced prizes.
Businesses have long fretted over how to best use extrinsic motivators such as bonuses or recognition to improve performance. Where the performance is strictly mechanical, such as repetitive assembly-line work or stuffing envelopes, for example, their effort is well spent. However, as work evolves to require ever more creativity and passion, an employer's best approach may be to provide an environment in which the employees’ own intrinsic motivations can flourish, and then get out of the way.
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