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In a classic season five episode from The Office, the Scranton branch takes part in a competition with other Dunder Mifflin branches. The goal? Be the branch to lose the most collective weight over several weeks. The reward? Extra paid vacation days. The staff of the Scranton branch eventually resorts to desperate measures to try to lose weight. Kelly even goes so far as to swallow what she thinks is a tapeworm. The promise of more vacation time was enough to get a group of people to do things they would normally never consider doing. While this is an extreme example of extrinsic motivation, it shows how powerful it can be.
This comical reference illustrates how many company managers motivate their employees. Dunder Mifflin management wanted their employees to get healthy and enticed them to do so with a reward. The same holds true for other businesses out there. But does extrinsic motivation work, or should you be focused on intrinsic motivation?
In this article, you’ll learn about what extrinsic motivation is, how it compares to intrinsic motivation, some of the downsides to it, and how to use it wisely.
What is Extrinsic Motivation?
Extrinsic motivation is a behavior motivated by the promise of external rewards. This type of motivation usually comes from an outside source like a boss or a teacher. Extrinsic rewards can appear in a tangible form or something more abstract, but they are something an individual highly desires. Whenever you do something with the expectation you will be rewarded for it, you are extrinsically motivated.
Extrinsic Motivation Examples
The above example from The Office shows one instance of an extrinsic reward: more vacation days. But such rewards come in many different shapes and sizes. If John goes to his job and gets paid for the work he does, that’s an extrinsic reward. In this case, money is the driving factor for his behavior, which is typical for many people. That doesn’t mean earning money is the sole reason for John going to work, but it does motivate him to perform tasks he might not like to do.
Another extrinsic motivation example would be trying to earn an award. If Allison works hard as a journalist to get the inside scoop with the hope of winning a prestigious journalism award, that’s her extrinsic motivation. She wants an outside source to reward her for the work she did.
Other examples of extrinsic motivation aren’t as tangible as money or awards. They might be something as simple as receiving praise from your boss or a high grade from a teacher. Others may work to gain fame and notoriety. Still, some people might act or behave in a particular manner to avoid punishment or judgment. No matter what type of extrinsic motivation someone has, it serves as an effective way to influence behavior.
The Difference Between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation
Intrinsic motivation differs from extrinsic motivation in that the motivation comes from within the individual. People who are intrinsically motivated engage in a behavior because they find that behavior is rewarding in itself. For example, if John works because he simply loves his job, that would mean he’s intrinsically motivated. The financial reward, his pay, is merely an added bonus to what he already loves to do. For many people, intrinsic motivation is all the motivation they need to do something. They usually have a growth mindset where they enjoy developing their skills and talents.
How Extrinsic Motivation Helps People
Extrinsic motivation can help people when intrinsic motivation is absent. It acts as a motivating force to get people to do things they don’t typically want to do. Almost every job has some aspects and tasks that people would rather skip, but extrinsic rewards ensure people do them. More than that, extrinsic rewards help people stay motivated when initial intrinsic motivation may die off. It gets workers to stay on task and do what’s necessary, especially with complex and challenging jobs.
Extrinsic motivation also gives people solid feedback on their performance. If a salesperson gets a bonus only when hitting a certain sales threshold, the extrinsic reward is an outside indicator of hitting that goal. It also might come in the form of a word of praise from a boss or manager in the company. Extrinsic rewards are just one of many types of feedback people receive that lets them know their performance is excellent.
Lastly, extrinsic motivation can act as an incentive to get people to learn new things. Not getting a lot of people to sign up for training? Attach a pay bonus or special gift to it, and people will respond. The possibility of getting a promotion or better pay will often drive people to learn new skills and develop their talents.
The Downsides of Extrinsic Motivation
That’s not to say that extrinsic motivation always carries benefits. When misused, it can lead to disadvantages and downsides that leaders need to be aware of. While useful in some circumstances, extrinsic motivation may even end up interfering with people’s intrinsic motivation. This is called the overjustification effect, where extrinsic rewards decrease intrinsically motivated behaviors.
The overjustification effect is best demonstrated in a famous study using felt-tip pens. This study involved children who all enjoyed drawing with their pens. Researchers rewarded one group of children for doing this activity, while the other group remained unaffected. The researchers found that when asked to draw with the pens again, the extrinsically motivated children didn’t have much interest in it. On the other hand, the children who received no reward still had interest and wanted to draw.
Those who further reviewed this research dispute some of the findings, while other analysis shows this type of extrinsic motivation only has negative consequences in certain situations. But the lesson to be learned from the study is that managers and directors may take extrinsic motivation too far. Do it in the wrong way, and it just might dampen someone’s intrinsic motivation for performing a task.
How to Use Extrinsic Motivation Wisely
Extrinsic motivation is not inherently bad or good. Use it appropriately, and people will work harder and sacrifice more. Use it poorly, and it loses its luster and may even decrease performance. The following tips can help you preserve the best aspects of extrinsic motivation.
1. Give Rewards Intentionally
Giving an extrinsic reward to recognize a job well done is a great way to appreciate excellent work. However, do it for every completed task, and it ceases to seem all that special. When rewarding work, do so intentionally, realizing that every team member has different extrinsic needs. Don’t give rewards for every single task. Know your team well enough to understand who to provide rewards to and when it’s appropriate.
2. Try Giving Surprise Rewards
One example of an extrinsic reward is giving a bonus to workers for hitting performance goals. That’s a great way to handle extrinsic motivation; however, giving out rewards at unexpected times can also be effective. When someone doesn’t expect a reward and then receives one for their work, the sense of accomplishment becomes magnified. Best of all, one study indicates that surprise rewards don’t diminish intrinsic motivation. So as long as surprise rewards get used sparingly, they can be influential motivating factors.
3. Know What Motivates Each Person
Another way to benefit from extrinsic motivation is to get a good idea of what motivates each person on your team. Just as there are five unique Love Languages, there are multiple ways to reward a team member that will resonate with some and not others. Would the possibility of a cash bonus lead to better performances, or would giving them more vacation days be more effective? This requires getting to know your team members. Building team culture takes time and effort, but you end up with a better understanding of how they’ll respond to different incentives.
4. Pick the Right Situation
Extrinsic rewards don’t just depend heavily on the person. They can also depend on the situation. Certain situations lend themselves to extrinsic rewards, and knowing which ones are best can make all the difference. Here are just a few examples of situations that may warrant encouraging extrinsic motivation.
- When new skills are needed: Team members may react to new projects requiring the development of new skill sets with reluctance. Training often takes more time out of the day, and some workers may feel they don’t have that time to spare. An extrinsic reward in this situation may convince people to learn and develop the necessary new skills, so they’re ready for the project.
- When projects take a long time: Some projects have long timetables. They can take months or even years to complete. Consequently, it’s easy to get burned out and lose motivation, especially when progress is slow. Smaller extrinsic incentives can help motivate people to keep going and reach their milestones. Cap it all off with a significant reward once teams complete their large projects.
- When people are uninterested: Sometimes, team members simply won’t have much interest in taking on extra tasks. To gain more interest, try offering an extrinsic reward. This additional incentive might be what you need to get people to willingly offer their time to help with a new project.
5. Offer Praise and Feedback
Extrinsic rewards don’t have to be elaborate gestures or expensive gifts. A simple word of encouragement or praise can work just as well. In fact, one study found that offering praise can even be beneficial to intrinsic motivation. So sending an email praising a team member for the excellent work they’ve done could be just as motivating as offering a reward.
Effective leaders will recognize the difference between candid and lazy praise. When offering praise to an employee, draw your praise back to the goal or mission of the company or team in specific terms. While it’s tempting to say, “Great work on that report last week,” the following is more effective, “Your report last week was exceptional. The attention to detail on slide 8 was outstanding, and you really made the results shine. It was clear that the client loved it. This is going to help us secure a renewed contract next month.”
Extrinsic Motivation Works When Intrinsic Motivation Doesn’t
In a perfect world, everyone would have intrinsic motivation for the work they do. They would enjoy the job itself and take great satisfaction in the individual tasks and responsibilities they have. Obviously, we do not live in a perfect world, and that’s okay. It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to be intrinsically motivated 100 percent of the time. To compensate for this, leaders need to offer extrinsic motivation for getting things done. The transformational leadership approach will effectively use this motivation to get results. Whether through encouragement, money, or other rewards, people will have the extrinsic motivation they need to reach their goals.
In the process, the extrinsically motivated person just might find some intrinsic motivation as well. In that same episode of The Office, at the end of the competition (which the Scranton branch loses), Stanley still finds great satisfaction in having lost seven pounds. He might not have won the outward prize, but he felt an inward sense of accomplishment. The same can be true in your organization.
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