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Posts & articles that have helped thousands build performance through pragmatic leadership.

Building Motivation: Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Reward

Motivation has to do with how you help others answer the question, “Why should I do it?” On the surface this “why-should-I-do-it?” mentality smacks of the cheapest form of Machiavellianism and seems to be a model of calculated opportunism. However, all social relationships are inevitably sustained by the answer to the “why-should-I-do-it” question. Implied in this question is the notion that we have some degree of volition—some choice.  You can choose to continue a relationship or leave it.  You can choose to continue working on a project, or drop it.  You can choose to go to the beach or stay home.  A managerially competent leader who is successful in motivating others can get others to stop asking, “Why should I do it?” and get them focused on what needs to be done.

When you motivate others, you instill in them the feelings, the rationalities, and the drives that can energize them toward specific goals. Leaders who can motivate give people the sense that they’re in the right place at the right time for the right reason.  A successful motivating leader is able to get people to stop wondering why they are doing something and is able to get them to focus on what needs to be done.

The academic literature on motivation suggests that motivation is cultivated on two fundamental mechanisms: extrinsic and intrinsic reward.  Motivation built on extrinsic rewards is generally thought of as the pursuit of material resources and financial rewards. It implies a rational calculation:  “If I do this, the consequence is that I will receive something of value in return”; or, “If I complete this project on time, there will be a bonus in it for me.” Extrinsic rewards generally consistent of material resources and incentives and are described in terms of pay and benefits. When you sustain momentum using extrinsic motivation, you’re implying a formal tit-for-tat exchange: You put in so much effort and you get so much in return.

Motivation based on intrinsic rewards recognizes that part of the payoff is derived from the activity itself and that there is something satisfying about the process you’re engaged in.  Intrinsic rewards include a sense of self-esteem, a sense of collective, a sense of prestige, and a sense of involvement.  Unlike extrinsic rewards, intrinsic rewards tend to be less quantifiable.  With intrinsic rewards “feelings” count more than “commodity.”  When you sustain momentum on the basis of intrinsic motivation, you can’t reduce everything to a formal tit-for-tat exchange.  You have to appeal to people’s emotions and give them a sense of purpose.

While it is well and good to build motivation using extrinsic rewards during a growth period, how do you build motivation when things get tough? How do you motivate when there is no bonus or when you’re downsizing? What you need is commitment based on intrinsic rewards.  Only with intrinsic rewards can you hope your project will go the distance.



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