A common way of describing the driving force that gets us started is based in the division between internal and external motivation. In psychological research the terms intrinsic and extrinsic are often used when trying to explain which factors make us finally get down to action as well as get joy from our work. This division may seem theoretical, but as it turns out research on the subject has shown that our motivation is highly affected by which consequences follow our actions. To only rely on rewards and encouragement can sometimes be detrimental to our will to keep working.

To put it concretely, external motivation means that a behavior becomes reinforced by being followed by an arbitrary reward, such as receiving money for completing a task. Internal motivation, on the other hand, consists of an action that reinforces itself, like the forward movement we experience while skiing.

Increasing our own - or someone else’s - internal motivation, however, requires that the consequences that follow our actions mirror our own proficiencies. External factors can have a positive effect on our driving force, but not if they have no clear connection to our actual performance. On the contrary, research has shown that rewards that are handed out only if we meet a predetermined result are the most detrimental to our motivation. One example of this is bonuses that are only dealt out when the company reaches a certain profit. The reason is in part that it’s perceived as controlling, and in part that it results in negative feedback on our performance if the result is not achieved.

Reflection session
Sit down with a couple of co-workers and discuss the consequences of your work. Are you good at giving feedback based on effort, or do you typically experience rewards when a predetermined result has been reached?