The more forms of motivation you have for your work, or anything, the better - right? Well, not necessarily. A new study by Amy Wrzesniewsky, professor of organizational behavior at Yale, and Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore, announced in today's New York Times, has found the opposite.
There are basically two forms of motivation for any behavior, or activity: intrinsic and extrinsic, or instrumental. With intrinsic motivation, you do what you do because you love it, or find it meaningful, or you value its natural innate rewards. With extrinsic, or instrumental, motivation, you engage in an activity because of external rewards you think it will bring, desirable things that are not inherently tied to the activity, but are promised to you for some form of excellence in that activity. As an example, when you're learning something new, you may be motivated intrinsically by the fascinating nature of the subject, or your own personal curiosity. You may value learning and growing and enriching yourself by the study you do. That's all intrinsic motivation.
In principle, you could work just as hard, even if you weren't that interested in the subject, or in the growth it would bring you, but just to get an A grade in a course, a 4.0 grade point average, Dean's List, and admission into your favorite next school along the way. That would be extrinsic, or instrumental, motivation, where the activity is being used as an instrument or tool for the attaining of something that's not inherently tied to it by its very nature. Someone not in school at all could be reading the same books, and doing the same analysis and memory work, where there were no grades, or lists, or future admissions at stake. That shows those rewards to be extrinsic, or not inherently tied to the activities in question.
Wrzesniewsky and Swartz claim that their research shows something interesting. Intrinsically motivated people do better over the long run than extrinsically motivated people. That in itself, or intrinsically, is interesting, and is a truth explored at length in Dan Pink's very nice book, Drive. But what's perhaps more surprising is the new body of evidence that adding extrinsic, or instrumental, motivation to an intrinsic interest, can actually be problematic over the long run, and degrade results.
How can that be? Isn't it always more motivating to add on an extra promise of reward? "Do the job well, and we'll give you extra credit, extra pay, a promotion, a cruise!" Well, it turns out that, no. The research being reported indicates that those who have both motivations for a longterm activity actually do less well than those whose motivations are simply intrinsic. Why? The researchers don't really say.
Let's suppose their study is right. How could it be that adding on an extra level of motivation for excellence in a longterm activity might actually be counter-productive? Well, one simple hypothesis is orientation conflict. People can't serve two masters, as the old biblical phrase has it. Whenever you have two distinct motivations, they can in principle come into conflict. There can be situations where there's a way to get the A, the Dean's List, the raise, or the bonus, that is actually out of step with what the intrinsically motivated person would do, and even more, where it's detrimentally contrary to a path of overall, longterm excellence. And because extrinsic motivators like prizes and grades and bonuses are available in the relatively immediate future, are commonly coveted, and appear, when they do, suddenly and dramatically, as well as often in a public way, they can easily begin to edge out the intrinsic motivator as what primarily forms your behavior. And this means that when there is a conflict, the wrong motivator wins.
People who love their work and find meaning in it tend to do better work than those who work only for the money. We know that. But wait. Does this new research show that we shouldn't pay people at all, lest we tempt them to serve two masters and do lesser work?
Not at all. There's a big difference between a consequence and a motivator. If a paycheck, or a royalty, or a financial return on investment of effort or expertise were not a part of the picture, most people could not afford to do the work at all. But the best people are often those who enjoy the consequence without being motivated by it. They do the work because they love it. They do it because it's meaningful to them. And, because of that, they do it best.
Secondly, this new research, at least, as it's reported in the Times, doesn't show that adding extrinsic rewards to intrinsic rewards can't in the short term enhance performance for a wide range of people. It's just problematic over longer time horizons where excellence is an issue.
Work for love. If you haven't already, then go find something to do that you love to do and would want to be involved in even if you weren't being paid for it. And then, when you can, make sure to hire people to do it with you who feel the same way. Create a keen sense of the excitement and meaning of the work - its nobility - both in its impact for good on others and in the fulfillment that comes to those who do it with world-class excellence.
Ironically, then your extrinsic rewards will tend to be greatest. Which just shows again that we live in a wonderfully crazy world.