Ten ways to kill productivity and passion: 6) Manufacture motivation

Jan 9, 2011 by

This is the sixth in a series of ten posts about common problems that can lead teams to fail or otherwise limit their success. The previous post in this series was 5) Dream impossible dreams.

Motivation is the force that moves us to achieve goals.

  • Intrinsic motivation is that which comes from within a person. For example,you might do something purely because you enjoy it. It is something you want to do.
  • Extrinsic motivation comes from outside a person. Money, accolades, grades and prizes are all extrinsic motivators that will lead you to do something even if you really don’t want to do it.  These motivators are used when someone else wants you to do something.

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be positive or negative. For example:

  • Positive intrinsic motivation: I really want to do this
  • Positive extrinsic motivation: Do this and we’ll pay you a lot of money
  • Negative intrinsic motivation: I really don’t want to do this
  • Negative extrinsic motivation: Do this or we’ll fire your ass

Coercion or punishment is an example of negative extrinsic motivation. There are obvious issues with this kind of motivation. Yet even positive extrinsic motivation has problems. Alfie Kohn, author, lecturer and education critic, wrote in the Boston Globe:

“studies shows that intrinsic interest in a task — the sense that something is worth doing for its own sake — typically declines when someone is rewarded for doing it”

The more extrinsic motivation is used, the less effective it becomes because intrinsic motivation declines. Yet organizations typically rely on extrinsic motivation. Additionally, as business becomes more complex and competitive, organizations are becoming increasingly dependent on creative people to help solve tough problems and create unique offerings. Yet, as Teresa Amabile, now a Harvard Business professor, points out in Kohn’s Boston Globe article:

“The more complex the activity, the more it’s hurt by extrinsic reward”

Of course most tasks don’t necessarily fall exclusively into one category or another. People typically perform tasks for their employers because they are both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. They would enjoy the work anyway but they are also getting paid. However the most creative people and the best problem solvers are motivated primarily through intrinsic means. They set their own high bars and subject themselves to great pressure simply for their own satisfaction. When money or some other extrinsic means of motivation becomes their primary reason for working, they become increasingly ineffective and dissatisfied.

If organizations truly want to innovate they should seek out individuals who are driven by their own volition and give them completely free time to create. Google engineers are encouraged to allocate 20 percent of their time (one day per week) to any company-related project that interests them. Similarly, IBM has Think Fridays, to encourage employees to spend Fridays brainstorming new projects unrelated to their current work. When organizations hire people who are not self-motivated and then proceed to motivate them solely through extrinsic means, they create a way of working that’s not sustainable especially for interesting and challenging work. In other words they are simply manufacturing motivation.


The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not reflect those of the author’s employers and/or clients or any of their respective clients. Your use of this content is governed by this site’s Terms of Use.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *