HR Management & Compliance

Do You Know the ‘Secret of Motivation’?

From The Oswald Letter

A colleague shared with me an article published recently in The New York Times Sunday Review. In addition to the fact that the article had been recommended, its title, “The Secret of Effective Motivation,” was certainly enough to get me to read it. Who in management doesn’t want to know the “secret” of effective motivation?

The article’s authors—Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor of organizational behavior, and Barry Schwartz, a professor of psychology—had conducted a study about motivation. According to them, there are two types of motivation: internal and instrumental. Internal motivation, as you would guess, comes from within. People are motivated to do something based on the feeling of satisfaction they derive simply from doing it. They’re the employees who come to work every day because they simply love what they do.

Instrumental motivation is the result of wanting some type of external reward. Maybe the person picks a profession because of the compensation that comes along with it. Or a person is motivated by some type of reward or bonus that is put in place to elicit a certain behavior or result.


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The authors studied more than 11,000 cadets who entered the Military Academy at West Point. They asked the cadets about their reasons for entering the academy. Were they there to become better leaders and serve their country, or were they looking for a better job later in life? In other words, were they driven by internal or instrumental motivation—or some combination of the two?

What type of motivation—internal or instrumental—do you think is most conducive to success? Or is it a combination of the two that results in the most success? Surprisingly, to me at least, the authors found that the cadets who had a high level of internal motivation did better than those who had both high internal and high instrumental motivation. They were more likely to graduate and become commissioned officers, were promoted more quickly, and were more likely to remain in the military even after their mandatory service requirement.

I assumed that people with a high degree of both internal and instrumental motivation would be the overachievers—that those who loved what they did coupled with a significant desire for external rewards such as money or recognition would be the most successful. It’s intriguing to me that, according to the authors, those driven by a combination of motivations don’t perform as well as those who have only a high internal motivation.

So what’s the conclusion for us as managers? Here’s how the authors put it: “Efforts should be made to structure activities so that instrumental consequences do not become motives. 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.”

Now that is consistent with what we’ve learned from other studies. Daniel Pink in his book Drive talks a lot about compensation not being a top motivator for most people. He argues that you need to pay people fairly so they can provide adequately for themselves and their families but that other factors are more important to motivation at work.

So the question for you and me is, “How do we help our people focus on the meaning and impact of the work they do?” I think the answer will depend on the type of business you are in. For instance, if you’re working for a nonprofit organization, the meaning of your work is most likely readily apparent. You won’t need to work too hard to figure out how to appeal to a person’s internal motivation. In fact, you’re probably already doing it. It’s likely why many of your people work there.

But what about the rest of us? Again, I think it will depend on the line of work you’re in, but a good place to start is probably with your customers. What impact are you having on your customers? What need are you meeting for them? What are they gaining from what you’re doing? I’m sure there are other ways you’re making an impact, but there’s no better place to look for meaning than with your customers.

And a better question may be, “How do we find these people with a strong internal motivation?” That I don’t have an easy answer for, but it should be a goal each one of us has as we add new members to our teams. Good luck!