25 Mar 2008 @ 9:17 PM 

If I told you that offering someone money to do something would actually demotivate that person to do the action, would you believe me? Probably not now, since it seems counter-intuitive, but you might after reading Edward L. Deci’s and Richard Flaste’s book, Why We Do What We Do. Deci argues that the prevalent systems for motivation in our society actually work to squelch genuine inherent curiosity. In other words, the systems put in place to get us to do things actually end up keeping us from wanting to do them naturally.

Think of little children. Infants need no prodding to pick up things, put them in their mouths, push them over, imitate words and actions, or do any of the other myriad things that are evidence of their drive to learn and discover. However, just a few years later, we start to see in more children a reluctance to engage, more of a willingness to sit back and be bored. Simple things such as playing piano and going to school pass from being exciting to being dreaded. It is all too easy to say, “Well, that happens to most kids, so it’s normal, isn’t it?” instead of stepping back and asking why it happens. Just because something is normal doesn’t necessarily make it healthy or desirable. What happens to our intrinsic motivation to learn and discover? Furthermore, in a society where we, in addition to our inborn natural motivation, have created all kinds of different motivational systems, both positive and negative, to provide a push in the direction of productivity, why do so many people in a free society (where any occupation is theoretically available to them) still hate their jobs and feel dissatisfied?

Deci began to study this question with some experiements involving students at Carnegie Mellon University. Subjects were asked to see how many configurations they could make from a block puzzle in a fixed period of time – half were paid, and half were volunteers. After finishing the session, both groups were left alone with the puzzle, magazines and other forms of distraction for 8 minutes while “the results were processed.” Deci found that, during this “processing” time where the subjects did not know they were being observed, the subjects who had been paid for playing with the block puzzles had a significiantly lower likelihood of continuing to play with the puzzle than those who had been doing it without being paid. This study and others conducted by Deci and colleagues show that once people receive a “carrot” to motivate them to do something, even something they may have a natural affinity for or interest in, the removal of that carrot will likely result in a diminished desire to engage in that activity. In the puzzles example, students who normally had an intrinsic interest in putting together puzzles as an enjoyable and challenging pastime lost interest, or at least refused to engage in the behavior, once the carrot was no longer offered. 

So what are the implications for a manager or small business owner? Since our economy runs on money and everyone needs it to live, pay rent, eat and so forth, can we really change the way we use it to motivate our employees? The book explores the impact of this concept on people, society and even the workplace in an effort to ask questions that will lead us to devising the proper role for external motivators. Obviously, we need to have a way of balancing supply and demand of products, so everyone is not fully free to choose their own occupation without regard to the future. We can expect to continue having to pay our employees for the foreseeable future. However, we can also take a look at our employees roles and total “compensation” packages a little differently, with money only being one factor. By giving people more autonomy in their position, and some economic, or at least strategic, “ownership” in the company, you might find that your return on investment, in terms of loyalty and productivity for the company, is higher than when money is the only real carrot. You might also take more care in selecting your employees and consider whether hiring someone with slightly less impressive credentials, but an evident affinity for your industry or the position, might not be a better choice as employee, especially if you are looking to fill a position long term.

You might also look at what negative motivators you are using with your employees. As Deci wrote, “[A]ny occurrence that undermines people’s feeling of autonomy–that leaves them feeling controlled–should decrease their intrinsic motivation … [so it is] necessary to determine what other events … beyond rewards, are likely to be percieved by people as controlling–as limiting their autonomy.” Threats and coercion act like money, providing short term motivation in the desired direction, but overall damaging the natural motivation of your employees. The degree of impact may be directly related to the level of control you wield through external means.

Deci later states that “People’s need for autonomy, their need to be a causal agent in managing themselves, provides the energy for integrating … a regulation.” There is a difference between achieving compliance and achieving buy-in with your corporate standards, strategy and rules. If the external motivator is strong enough (monetary incentives, threats, etc.) a manager can get employees to submit to the corporate ideals, even though they may be sincerely opposed to the plan or the manner in which it is being carried out. To be sure, some amount of social directing is necessary to help markets run more efficiently, as the supply of goods and services would undoubtedly be chaotic if everyone was paying attention only to what they wanted to do, instead of what the market was asking for. However, we can still learn lessons as managers.

When hiring, ask more questions about the potential hire’s interests in your industry, not just their qualificiations for the position. Hiring someone who genuinely cares about and is interested in what your company is doing will increase the likelihood that that employee will think about your business “off the clock” and be aware of industry developments that could be early signs of threats or opportunities for your company. You may also need to spend less time policing their efficiency and/or get a slight break on payroll, since you will essentially be paying someone to do many things that they are interested in doing anyway. In your ongoing relationship with that employee, you may find it easier to give them true stewardship in their job function based on their passion and competence in that area, which will lighten the load on yoru shoulders to deal with heavier matters in the administration of your venture.  

I would even dare agree with (and paraphrase) Deci when he wrote, “For a [company] to function effectively, its individual [employees] must, to some extent, adopt the [company]’s values and mores.” This is a delicate process. First, the motivation and the individual’s personal values have to merge together. This is a difficult prospect when positive reinforcements are forcing unnatural behavior (going all day to a job one hates), and a disaster with negative motivation (keeping employees present and productive primarily through threats and coercion). Second, the more the values of the management philosophy and subject matter of the industry are dissimilar to those of the employee, the more difficult this values integration process will be.

Well, this review is already quite a bit longer than I intended it to be and yet doesn’t even begin to touch on the depth of this book. Reading it was an extraordinarily thought-provoking experience. Though some readers will still find that this book has a relatively academic feel, I thought the authors did a great job of striking the balance between giving a sampling of the deep academic, and at times philosophic, thought supporting their work and making it accessible to the every-day practitioner (small-business owner, manager, etc.). It is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in trying to gain true efficiency from themselves and their employees.      

Posted By: TJ
Last Edit: 28 Mar 2008 @ 07:44 AM



Responses to this post » (3 Total)

  1. I’m here because I am using google to track research and postings about intrinsic motivation.

    Your post provides a worthwhile summary.

    After I encountered Deci et al, I became very interested in research elsewhere that sought to reconcile the paradox of internal-reflective/external-projective intentionality. There are all sorts of practical factors of motivation that seem to float around without being nailed down.

    For example, is confirmation that one is working to effect a group mission a factor of extrinsic or intrinsic motivation? I think it’s the former. The (so-called) object may be internalized but it is ‘outside’ as is its payoff, and this goes for whether a mission is merely introjected or integrated.

    The fascinating turn is toward integrated theorizing about motivation for which conceptions of intrinsic/extrinsic, efficacy, autonomy, goal orientation, group relations, and other stuff, blend into a rich picture.

    One other practical note: for me the number one thing a manager can do to learn about what intrinsically motivates a supervisee, is to ask them what they like do just for the sake of doing it. In the practical literature this obvious point is seldom mentioned.

    My sense is this is because once the theory drifts down to applications, there is strong tendency to mistake extrinsic factors, and reinforcers for intrinsic ones. This has to, possibly, do with the strong impulse to, in effect, control processes of internalization in a worker, work group.

    Good luck with your blog!

  2. TJ says:


    Thanks for your comment and interest in the subject. I’m glad you found the post worthwhile, even though it was intentionally abbreviated and focused on trying to show off the practical applications of Deci’s research. I’m excited for how the world will innovate as it learns to help employees find work doing what they love, and not just taking home a paycheck. Good luck with your continuing research, and here’s hoping I one day write something else you’ll find interesting!


  3. I am looking forward to reading this book. I will actually listen to it on tape. No CD, no MP3 no direct downlink to my brain. I can’t keep up with the technology.

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