Saturday, March 12, 2011

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.