Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation. Some psychological concepts to help you motivate your employees

Functional beliefs – the basis of well-being

Some time ago I read a post about a groundbreaking experiment. It was about a study by psychologist Alia Crum and her mentor Ellen Langer. In it, the authors tested whether making cleaners aware that their work is beneficial physical activity would affect their physical or mental state. The results proved surprising even to the female researchers.

Not only did the cleaners’ well-being improve. The change in their perception of their work also affected their bodies. Their blood pressure, BMI and body fat percentage decreased.

What actually happened? The authors justify this result by a change in the participants’ attitudes. The realization that working out could keep them healthy not only became a motivation to work more efficiently, but also increased the energy and enthusiasm with which they worked.

I was also immediately reminded of the ABC theory created by Albert Ellis, one of the fathers of cognitive-behavioral therapy. This theory is based on the concept of beliefs (B – beliefs) that arise in response to events (A – activating event). These beliefs are responsible for the interpretation of events and, consequently, for our reaction (C – consequences) – in the form of emotions, body sensations or behavior. To put it simply – it’s up to us alone to decide whether an event triggers pleasant, neutral or negative feelings in us.

One of the key elements of cognitive-behavioral therapy is the replacement of old, problematic beliefs with new ones that improve a person’s well-being.

The more difficult, more personal beliefs often require more work. In the case of the cleaners, however, these thoughts were quite superficial. The researchers used their authority and scientific evidence to influence them to change in the female participants.

People who are aware of how strongly their beliefs affect them know that the responsibility for their own well-being lies with them. They can also help others understand this. They are better able to resolve conflicts or identify individual needs. After all, behind every behavior and emotion is a belief.

This does not mean, of course, that every job can bring satisfaction to every person. We all have our own needs that we want to fulfill in a well-chosen position. However, there is always a chance that we don’t see some benefit or purpose for doing what we do.

So if we want to build a well-motivated team, it’s worth considering what benefits does the job bring to its participants or others? Or are the negatives of this work not so bad after all in the bigger picture?

And while we’re at it, how do we get the word out to employees?

Well, it has been known for a long time that the key to influencing employee attitudes is communication with them. Without it, employed people are not aware of what the company actually achieves with them, whether its goals and values are in line with those of the employee, and what the job offers them to develop as a human being, not just a contractor. On the other hand, without communication with employees, management is unable to identify and understand their beliefs.

Nor, of course, are we going to tell every employee from now on that manual labor is good for their health ;). But perhaps we can at least communicate to him that he is not indifferent to us and we are interested in how he feels while working? We may even be able to influence his comfort level enough for him to develop… flow?

Flow – A sense of free flow

Csikszentmihalyi – this word has not yet appeared in our articles. Is it a way to describe some strange emotional state in an oriental language? Or perhaps the second longest place name in Wales, after Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllllantysiliogogogoch?

No, it’s an acerbic name. A name very well known in psychology, because:

Its author created one of the most famous psychological concepts and
No one can pronounce it.
Back to the point – this author created the concept of “flow“, that is, a state in which a person is completely engaged in an activity and feels great while doing it. In such a state, time seems to flow faster and the person is more productive and satisfied.

Surely you have experienced flow at some point. It usually appears when:

  • You have a clearly defined goal
  • You know that its realization will be an interesting challenge for you and
  • You feel responsibility for your own decisions during it.

I often experience it when I’m traveling – when I’m planning, looking for places that can delight me and organizing everything step by step. I also feel it when I play some computer games or when I try to program, although I am not a programmer.

You may be wondering now: All right, but how do I apply this to a company that has hundreds or thousands of employees, who in addition perform routine tasks? Am I able to induce a feeling of flow in my employees?

Well, both yes and no. Before I answer why, I’ll expand a bit on this theory so that it’s easier to understand what the dilemma is all about.

A job that fills an employee with a feeling of flow is the key to the emergence of satisfaction in the employee, and consequently motivation to continue. And there is plenty of research on this. One of them is the work Flow experience and job characteristics: analyzing the role of flow in job satisfaction, in which 105 employees, aged 21 to 64, were studied.

The experiment examined how they perceived their jobs in several basic aspects:

  • The meaningfulness and value of tasks to the employee (meaningfulness),
  • The efficiency and responsibility they feel (responsibility), and
  • Awareness of the results of work (knowledge of results).

It was then examined whether they correlate with the appearance of feelings of flow. It was also examined whether, once flow appears, it actually affects employee satisfaction.

Probably at this stage you have already guessed the results.

All of the above definitely affect employees’ feelings of flow. This, in turn, directly translates into their satisfaction.

Returning to the dilemma posed above: Yes, it is possible to induce a feeling of flow in employees, but no, it cannot be done directly and fully. Flow is a state that can be complete or partial. So changes can be made to make employees feel flow more often and more strongly.

And how can this be done? Maybe I’ll use a few examples at this point, for each of these elements:

  • Sense and value for the employee – manufacturing company TOMS Shoes devotes a sizable portion of its resources to doing more than making shoes. One of its well-known ventures is a company-wide charity drive. As part of it, for every pair of shoes sold, another pair is given to a child in one of the third world countries.
    Another example is Dansko, also a shoe manufacturer, whose mission focuses on environmental responsibility and community involvement. The company keeps its employees informed about how their work contributes to supporting local communities or improving sustainable production. Employees can also participate in paid environmental volunteering as part of their job.
  • Agility and accountabilityToyota is known for its groundbreaking production system. One of its components is Kaizen, or continuous improvement. Under it, employees in a given position are treated as experts in their field. As such, they are encouraged to constantly propose ideas for improvement. These suggestions are considered on an ongoing basis, and when they are implemented, the employee sees his direct participation in the process. In the process, he or she has the opportunity to make work easier for themselves and their co-workers.
  • Awareness of work results – In this case, the issue is simple. Very many companies hold regular meetings with employees or, through communication systems, inform them of the results. Employees have the opportunity to communicate their ideas or concerns, and get rewards for good performance. Manufacturing companies that use such systems include 3M, Harley-Davidson, Bosch or Siemens.
    Each of these changes by itself will not create a feeling of flow in employees. However, it is one of the elements that make up a work culture conducive to frequent and strong work with this feeling.

External or internal motivation?

In the article described above, there is also a reference to one of the most famous theories in the field of work psychology and motivation, cited thousands of times (sic!): Self-determination theory.

But wait a minute, what exactly is it? And how does it differ from extrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation comes from one’s own values, interests and curiosity. It allows for the development of competence and autonomy. It is associated with higher levels of commitment, creativity and satisfaction. It is influenced by factors such as:

  • Interest in the task
  • A sense of competence
  • Willingness to develop in a given direction
  • Alignment with company values and goals
  • Sense of belonging and relevance in the group
  • A sense of having the resources and tools to perform the task

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is driven by rewards and punishments that come from outside the individual. It often occurs as a result of other people’s expectations, pressure or the individual’s perception that certain activities are enjoyable, important or necessary. It consists of such elements as:

  • Salary and bonuses
  • Additional perks
  • Training and courses
  • Stability of employment
  • Promotion prospects
  • Sanctions and disciplinary penalties
  • Praise and recognition

Both types of motivation are very important, and the key is to properly balance them.

It is easy to imagine, for example, a mechanic who has a lot of knowledge and intrinsic motivation for his work. He loves doing what he does, but the low salary, difficult conditions or lack of any benefits may cause his enthusiasm to eventually die out and he decides to change jobs.

On the other hand, think of a production director who has a great salary and very good conditions, but internally feels that the job does not develop her in any way. Such a person will not be engaged and also sooner or later may look for a job where she feels fulfilled.

However, despite awareness of this balancing act, the authors of the theory: Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, are straightforward: For long-term commitment and psychological well-being, intrinsic motivation is important.

And this is because the theory of self-determination was based on the result of their earlier groundbreaking research on motivation precisely. They studied two groups of people: one was to solve puzzles for their own satisfaction. The other was to do the same, but for money. It turned out that people who consider their actions as stemming from the desire to earn money lose motivation much faster. This is because they begin to value their time as they would do with a product or service.

Extrinsic motivators are effective, however, when they are seen as support or confirmation of one’s own competence. They can then even increase an already sizable intrinsic motivation.

An additional curiosity: the creator of the Pyramid of Needs – Maslow, described self-actualization as the only need whose fulfillment increases the need. Only a sense of continuous development makes it possible for us to continue working and not lose motivation for it. I think this illuminates well why it is intrinsic motivation that is the basis for long-term commitment.

Intrinsic motivation in practice

Okay, enough theory. It’s time to see if all that satisfaction, motivation and flow bring some tangible benefits!

With help comes the Gallup Institute, the oldest institute that keeps statistics related to work and motivation. One of their latest reports (from the end of 2020) related to studying the impact of employee engagement on company performance leaves no illusions. Companies that reported high levels of engagement were significantly more successful than those with low levels. And this, note, in all areas studied (of which there were 11).

Thus, for example: Companies with high levels of involvement have by:

  • 23% higher profitability
  • 41% better production quality (relative to the number of defects)
  • 81% lower employee absenteeism or even
  • 28% lower levels of “wasted time” (or, to put it more simply, they pretend to work less often)

Perhaps also a few words about what the survey looked like. Respondents answered questions about overall satisfaction levels, as well as those related to knowledge of goals, opportunities for self-development, a sense of belonging, etc. They then checked how the level of these indicators related to the above parameters across the company.

What’s more, according to their previous report, the number of companies whose employees are truly engaged is increasing, and those who are not engaged is decreasing. This makes taking care of employees’ intrinsic motivation almost standard.

On the other side of the barricade, however, are companies whose underdeveloped culture and low orientation to the needs of the individual mean that their employees even have to be “bribed” to work. In such companies, resources go not to employees’ ideas or their development, but to keeping the plant in relative balance.

And actually, it’s not surprising that this happens. Reaching the internal motivations of employees is not a simple task. Personally, I understand the concerns, and to allay them I will quote a professional quote I somehow read on the Internet somewhere: “There are no difficult things, they are only time-consuming.” In order not to be lip service, I will perhaps describe what the process looked like when we started working with Volkswagen Poznań. In our materials, we practically always point to this one company, because it was our first implementation of this kind, but in the future we will start sharing our experiences in cooperation with other companies.

VW Poznań was conducting internal communications through various channels, but they wanted the messages to reach as many people as possible. They wanted to build an even more engaged community and take care of the well-being of the employees working there.

The choice fell on an internal communication app – now known as AllAbout. So we got to work. Before long, using the messaging and announcement system, employees began to receive information about everything going on in the company – from minor events to major decisions. It was also possible to show them how their company works and what its goals actually are.

We were relieved to find that it worked. And that the employees are happy, and that happy are we, because we learned something new and had a lot of flow during this project.

The application is much more developed today than at the very beginning, and we won’t describe all the features here (you can find them at the link above).

The important thing is that it is not just an information tool. It’s not just about sending the latest news from the company’s life. It’s about building a team that derives true job satisfaction, and for that you need a combination of several elements:

  • Ensure their perception of their own work,
  • Provide them with evidence of the relevance of their tasks in the larger process,
  • See to it that tasks bring them a sense of flow and
  • Take care of their motivation – both intrinsic and extrinsic.

How to do this in practice? This article is already long enough, it’s a topic for a separate post.

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