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Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation: Is One Better Than The Other?

Have you observed the behavior of children as they carry out daily tasks? They may naturally be inclined towards playing games with friends but would need a push to do their homework. Children may enjoy eating junk food by themselves but need adult monitoring while reluctantly having vegetables.

As these kids grow up, the behavior remains the same. There are many reasons we do certain things. Sometimes, we’re internally motivated to make something happen, and other times we’re driven externally. Such a dichotomy involves contrasting intrinsic motivation versus extrinsic motivation:[1]

“When intrinsically motivated, people engage in an activity because they find it interesting and inherently satisfying. By contrast, when extrinsically motivated, people engage in an activity to obtain some instrumentally separable consequence, such as the attainment of a reward, the avoidance of punishment, or the achievement of some valued outcome.”

Read on to learn more about intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation and find out how reward-oriented behavior influences our productivity and how we can regulate it!

What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

All the theories that describe what classifies as intrinsic motivation talk about a natural drive from within to pursue an activity because it gives us pleasure.

Some psychology researchers have associated intrinsic behavior with basic human needs, creativity, performance enhancement, and contentment.[2] When we carry out a task that fulfills our natural urges, such as hunger, thirst, and sleep, we are better equipped with the drive to complete a task. Other times, we might simply do something because it stimulates the aesthetic experience of being in that state of activity, such as hobbies.

Simply put, activities that bring us satisfaction and joy are powered by intrinsic motivation because an internal reward system fuels them.

Examples of Intrinsic Motivation

  • Studying because you enjoy the process of gaining knowledge and not simply because you want good grades
  • Helping out a friend/family member with something out of love without expecting anything in return from them
  • Standing in the kitchen for hours to prepare your favorite meal because the end product satiates your hunger and gives you joy
  • Pursuing a hobby, such as gardening, trekking, camping, and playing sports, among others, to experience an aesthetic pleasure
  • Running a marathon to feel physically rejuvenated instead of seeking the prize money
  • Taking up extra responsibility at work/school to improve your skills without the intention of gaining recognition or earning someone’s favor

What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

When we are not inherently motivated to perform a task because it does not bring about a sense of satisfaction, we are extrinsically motivated. Such motivation facilitates our desire to attain a reward or avoid punishment.

Not all the work we do brings us joy, owing to its repetitive nature, urgency, necessity, frequency, duration, or monotony. Whether it is dragging ourselves to work/school every morning or working on weekends, we tend to undertake tasks that might not inherently please or satisfy us. Usually, an external force or ulterior motive drives us to complete such tasks. Rewards like money, praise, and fame drive our motivation extrinsically.

However, extrinsic motivation does not necessarily mean that we are unwilling to do something. We just seek an external reward from it. For example, a person might like writing but goes the extra mile to make money out of it.

Point to be noted: Offering external rewards for something that already rewards inherently can decrease motivation, known as the overjustification effect.[3]

Examples of Extrinsic Motivation

  • Working a part-time job to make extra money while still being a student
  • Participating in competitions to win prizes and earn fame
  • Attending classes regularly not because the lecture is exciting but to maintain the attendance record
  • Going to the office on lazy days to avoid pay-cut
  • Completing a task well before time to earn praise and recognition
  • Doing something you don’t like just to avoid public judgment
  • Doing chores to flatter parents before requesting something from them

The 3 Regulators of Productivity

As social beings, we interact with our surroundings to tend to our satisfaction and gain. Despite being interlinked with various social factors, we still act independently as individually identifiable beings with preferences and opinions.

Daniel H. Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, talks about the evolving state of the digital economy and leaders can adopt more effective methods of motivation. He proposes three principles of increasing productivity: autonomy, mastery (alternatively, competence), and purpose. Detaching his propositions from the workplace context to universalize it, I shall discuss the impact of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation on these three principles.

  • Autonomy refers to the amount of creativity and control we hold over individual expression without any external influence. It determines our independence in making choices and deciding the course of future actions.
  • Mastery or competence is our capacity to execute a task to the best of our ability without any external help. Our competency level governs how well we can perform when tasked with something.
  • Purpose alludes to the yearning within individuals to contribute to humankind’s more meaningful existence beyond the self.

Productivity is a cumulative result of the above three that motivation regulates. In the following section, we shall explore the differing impacts of the two kinds of motivation on individual performance: intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation: Is There a Third Option?

In a psychological study, Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci found out that “conditions supportive of autonomy and competence reliably facilitated this vital expression of the human growth tendency, whereas conditions that controlled behavior and hindered perceived reflectance undermined its expression.”[4]

In other words, whether a task is intrinsically or extrinsically motivated, it should not negatively impact our natural abilities.

They also concluded that “Excessive control, nonoptimal challenges, and lack of connectedness…disrupt the inherent actualizing and organizational tendencies endowed by nature, and thus such factors result not only in the lack of initiative and responsibility but also in distress.” Simply put, unachievable challenges and emotional detachment can diminish individuals’ natural abilities and negatively impact performance.

Hence, it is safe to conclude that positive motivation is the key to performance enhancement without mentally, physically, or emotionally tiring out an individual. Whether it is at school, work, or social circles, superiors must ensure that an assigned task must be positively motivated in a way that warrants commitment, interest, and productivity. Hence, the type of motivation is not significant to performance as long as it does not hinder the three principles of productivity.

How Can You Positively Motivate Others?

Provide regular feedback: Individuals putting in efforts to make something happen, like hearing about their strengths and weaknesses. But before doing that, you must establish feedback-giving as a positive and encouraging process towards development within the social setup!

  • Set attainable goals: Asking too much from people negatively impacts performance as it does not respect their abilities. It can also be severely discouraging as it prevents individuals from giving their best, thinking that it is unattainable.
  • Challenge them by gradually increasing the level: Once you have gauged a person’s skill level, you can slowly give them more significant tasks to expand their abilities.
  • Inspire them: Setting an example is the best way to motivate others. You could perform your best to let people know what you expect from them.
  • Establish a trust relationship: Trust is the key to maintaining any human relationship, whether personal or professional. Ensuring the existence of this emotion comforts and inspires them to do better.
  • Maintain a healthy reward system: Humans cannot resist rewards, whether intrinsic or extrinsic. Maintaining a healthy reward system can propel others to work harder and productively.
  • Seek feedback from them: Finally, seeking feedback is just as important as giving it. Don’t forget to ask people’s opinions on the changes you can make to your approach!

Final Thoughts

Looking at your life with a bird’s eye view isn’t always easy. You sometimes need external motivators who see your potential and help you pave a path to success. But even when you have external motivators backing you up, paying close attention to your internal dialogue will help you cross the roadblocks.

And do not forget, motivation isn’t the goal in itself—it’s the pathway to a long journey where you achieve more milestones, and looking at the bird’s eye view of your life becomes easier. Have a happy journey!

More About Motivation

  • Why Intrinsic Motivation Is So Powerful (And How to Find It)
  • Motivation: Your Ultimate Guide for Staying Motivated

Reference

NCBI: The Emerging Neuroscience of Intrinsic Motivation: A New Frontier in Self-Determination Research
Science Direct: Intrinsic Motivation
verywellmind: How the Overjustification Effect Reduces Motivation
University of the Virgin Islands: Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being

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Motivation in the workplace is a big topic, more so right now due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the onset of the “new normal” working environment. Motivation is featured highly on every leader’s agenda as the quick transition to working from home (WFH) took place, coupled with the mass adoption of digital forms of communication as the main point of connection.

There has been a shifting landscape as the tectonic plates of aspiration, value, and meaning collide with what motivates individuals and teams in the workplace.

In this article, I will talk about how to improve individual employee motivation and how to improve team motivation, as what motivates a team to high performance can differ from that of an employee.

Now, let’s dive into what’s really going on. Here are three powerful ways to improve employee motivation post-pandemic.

1. Give Employees Autonomy

I think a large majority of companies have missed a golden opportunity to build trust during the pandemic and subsequent new normal era. Instead, they chose to focus on measuring productivity and quantifying efficiency over autonomy and trust. As a result, they inadvertently squandered the opportunity that was in front of them.

At the same time, for the employee, the veil has been lifted, the curtain pulled back, and the magic has worn off. However you want to look at it, the shift from 9 to 5 office culture to WFH has left many employees wondering why—why did I tolerate the long commute to the office? We’re all those in-person meetings necessary?

Work-life in the 21st Century has been put under the microscope and scrutinized because of a virus. employees are often packed like sardines into hot and sweaty train carriages or sitting motionless in rush hour traffic for hours on end, not to mention the pressure of carefully planning the day’s outfit all just to be seen working at the desk and readily available to anyone who wants to stop by for a disruptive but well-meaning natter.

While the move to WFH has provided some additional benefits, such as more time with family, a more flexible working location, no commute, and casual dress, it has also caused some issues to show up.

These issues relate directly to business stress and health. They include increased expectations around being available beyond the scope of normal working hours, being hyper-visible online, answering Slack messages at the drop of a hat, increased use of urgent language, and daily video training calls scheduled intrusively throughout lunch breaks.

All of which to say, work-life balance and personal power have been compromised, and a huge opportunity for increased focus and motivation are missed due to the factors I’ll explain below.

The Home Has Become the Office

Society is working longer and harder than before and finds it harder to switch off because now, the office is also the home. Managers who understand that the boundaries between personal and professional have been violated and understand that working from home isn’t necessarily ideal will get the best from their employees.

Managers can be more thoughtful by showing respect and awareness of the situation, such as cramped home environments (not everyone has a home office), children causing general disruption, managing household visitors from cleaners, parcel deliveries, and grocery drop-offs, combined with the added pressure to always be available online.

To motivate employees, where possible, allow them to gain freedom over their daily work. When employees feel trusted to make decisions and operate independently, it promotes feelings of well-being and self-confidence.

A 2020 study on the future of work showed that with covid-19 and the new normal, more people than ever are moving jobs for autonomy and flexibility. “People want to control when they work, where they work, and what they’re working on,” says Arvind Malhotra Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.[1]

The upshot is that the level of autonomy that employees experienced during the pandemic has, in turn, led to changes in employee expectation around the degree of autonomy that they expect going forward.

Simply put, employees now value autonomy more than they did in the pre-pandemic era. Therefore, companies that adapt to this will inevitably attract the best talent by default. Those that don’t will lose out, and rightly so.

This new outlook on life is also impacting the way employees view the traditional working hours of 9 to 5. Business owners must now consider rethinking this paradigm as it allows employees to complete work in blocks or batches, which is more convenient for the employee.

In essence, autonomy in all regards is now the attribute employees are prioritizing and can be used as a method of motivation.

2. Go Deeper

Taking it a step further, feeling valued as an employee and respected for who you are as a person beyond your role at the company is poised to become a key factor in motivation in the workplace.

People want to feel understood, valued, and respected. The introduction of “slack time” (i.e., letting employees focus on projects outside the scope of their normal role, e.g., developing a side project, learning to code, or picking up a language) has been adopted by many of the major tech players for some time.

When companies embrace the pursuits and endeavors of the individual beyond the workplace and promote them internally, it makes the employee feel valued and in turn creates meaning. This should not be overlooked. The value of doing meaningful work is what it’s all about.

I have experienced this myself working for Playground XYZ, the innovative attention-based mobile company headquartered out of Australia that readily embraced my role as an author, entrepreneur, and mentor, which made it such a privilege to work for them. When meaning can be attached to the job, it promotes a huge win for the company as employees identify more deeply with the products they are representing, the values of the company, and its core mission.

What companies should consider as it relates to employee motivation levels is the optimal level of side-project time to boost motivation in business. Does 10% make an adequate difference? How about 40%?

Whatever the percentage is, companies that can praise employees’ talents at the individual level and showcase them as valued members of the team will thrive.

3. Be Mindful When Using Technology

Zoom fatigue? We’ve all been there—a series of grueling back-to-back Zoom calls, flickering eyelids, the mental fog at the end of a long day fuelled by caffeine and inhaled lunches, and the urge to write just one more email.

But stop—this is not what the future of work will look like. There is a dire need for the consideration of building a “technology detox” into the normal routine of the working day of every employee so that it is adopted and becomes common practice.

Mindfulness in the workplace is another method of improving engagement, cognitive focus, and productivity. The mistake is reconciling that longer hours equal greater results.

Instead, having flexibility around walking meetings, in-person catch-ups, and time away from the requirement to be contactable boosts positivity and makes employee motivation levels sore. Imagine if every employee felt this burst of life.

The pandemic has shown that work can be done outside of the office, but there is a giant opportunity waiting to be unlocked. Those companies that find the appropriate balance will prevail.

Improving Team Motivation in the Workplace

Now, here are two important points to consider for improving team motivation in the workplace.

Doing the Opposite

This might sound counterintuitive, but it works. Yet, so many leaders get this wrong. The principle is that when you’re winning, it’s time to drive the team harder and when you’re losing, it’s time to show relatability and understanding.

Why then do so many leaders fail to put this into practice when it truly matters?

Most leaders panic when they see falling revenue numbers and instead of adopting a nurturing growth-centered presence, they go on a rampage, micromanaging and haranguing, destroying momentum, and creating a pressure cooker-type environment, which only serves to stifle and demotivate the team further.

I encourage you to try out doing the opposite if your team is currently behind on their numbers right now. Follow this strategy, and see how your attitude changes the results and goes a long way to building the momentum back up.

Notice how new information flows to you and fresh insights that would previously have remained hidden are suddenly revealed by the team. It takes courage to do this, but it demonstrates trust and empathy from which a newfound team dynamic can be developed. This is the glue that forms a strong bond between team members and their manager, which in turn promotes sharing of ideas and culture.

At times of heightened stress, motivate through encouragement, learning, and growth. The last thing your team needs is for you to turn into an overbearing manager who displays your stress levels for all to see.

This is poor leadership. The best leaders can control their emotions while giving employees what they need—a helping hand to understand that they will rise to the top through preparation and a solid plan of action.

Maintaining Core Values

When employees understand and operate by the company values, they have a road map, a battle plan, a way to make decisions that frees them from the mental overload of decision paralysis. When company values aren’t clear, made obvious, or ingrained, the culture of the organization will suffer dramatically. It will be lifeless.

Values are the rudder in the water that directs the wind in the sails and serve as guiding principles that must be taught, repeated daily, and lived by.

Ask yourself this, “what do we stand for?”

If you can’t answer this from a company perspective, then you are rudderless and when the storm hits, be prepared to take a battering.

More Tips on Motivating Employees

  • How To Boost Employee Motivation During Difficult Times

Reference

UNC Kenan-Flagler: Shaping the future of work

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