Meaningful work is driven by intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, motivation.
Extrinsic motivation is a nice way of describing when you do things primarily to receive a reward. You might take a new job because of the higher pay and better benefits package. Then you work 60-hour weeks to reach an arbitrary goal that someone else has set. After all, it will look good on your résumé a few years from now when someone is judging you–based on their own motivations.
Intrinsic motivation–or deep internal motivation–is much richer. For example, consider a teacher who is inspired by the growth of a student or a doctor who is driven by improving health. Intrinsic motivation stems from the meaningfulness of the work you do. You are driven by what you yearn to do even if there is no reward or compensation.
Emerging research suggests that it is better to focus solely on intrinsic motivation, because deriving any motive whatsoever from external incentives could decrease performance. Yale’s Amy Wrzesniewski and her team followed 11,320 West Point military cadets and assessed their motives for attending the academy over a 14-year period. The researchers made a startling discovery: Cadets who entered West Point because of internal motivators were more likely to graduate, become commissioned officers, receive promotions, and stay in the military compared with those who entered due to external motives. Those cadets who entered with both strong internal (e.g., a desire to lead others) and external (e.g., to get a better job and make more money) motives, however, did not exhibit that same likelihood of success.
Contrary to what these researchers initially suspected, two strong motivators led to poorer outcomes across all of these measures when compared with internal motivation alone. The results caused the researchers to question whether the Army should put more emphasis on leading others and serving your country instead of money for college or career training. They also questioned this general logic for other professions, like the practice of motivating teachers with bonuses for higher test scores.
“Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring, may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also–counterintuitive though it may seem–their financial success,” observed Wrzesniewski and her co-author Barry Schwartz. This is especially important because it is easy to fall into the trap of allowing external incentives, such as monetary rewards at work, to detract from your ability to focus on meaningful efforts to serve others.
One challenge is that cultivating and developing intrinsic motivation often requires conscious effort. To study this, researchers randomly assigned groups of creative writers to take a survey that either subtly reminded them of intrinsic or extrinsic motivations for writing. If the writers thought about intrinsic reasons beforehand, their subsequent work was graded as far more creative. In contrast, when writers spent even five minutes thinking about the external motivators for their work, it had the opposite effect.
Think about the implications for your work. When you are bombarded with conventional carrot-and-stick motivators, even if they help at first, they are not sustainable. Instead, look for small ways to keep your best internal motivators top of mind throughout the day.
Just having photos of my kids on my smartphone lock screen and desk is a great reminder and motivator for me. A friend of mine in publishing is driven by a weekly report that shows how many people are reading the books he has worked on. James Allen, a train station attendant in London, motivates himself by trying to get even the most hardened commuters to smile. The things that charge you from within are likely very different from what works best for the people around you. Intrinsic motivations are not universal; they are individualized.
Try to find activities outside of work that appeal to your intrinsic motivation. One study found that employees who were encouraged to engage in creative activities unrelated to work, such as creative writing or other artistic endeavors, subsequently performed better on the job. Researchers at the University of Exeter found that simply being able to decorate your workspace with things like plants, art, or pictures of loved ones could increase productivity by up to 32%. This is why companies like Google encourage employees to make their workplace feel like home, even if it looks like a mess to others.
Excerpted from Are You Fully Charged? (Silicon Guild, May 2015).
Tom Rath is an author and researcher who studies the role of human behavior in business, health, and well-being. Tom has written ﬁve New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers over the past decade, starting with the number one New York Times bestseller How Full Is Your Bucket? Tom serves as a Gallup senior scientist, where he previously spent 13 years leading the organization’s work on employee engagement, strengths, leadership, and well-being. For more information please visit www.tomrath.org and follow the author on Twitter and Facebook.