The Verdict Is Intrinsic

By Malcolm Fleschner

Cash, merchandise, travel – what do these incentive ‘carrots’ have in common? They’re all external motivators designed to urge salespeople to improve performance, increase sales and achieve goals. They’re also what professor Ken Thomas calls "extrinsic rewards." And while Thomas acknowledges the importance and value of extrinsic motivation, that’s only half the story, he says.

In Intrinsic Motivation at Work: Building Energy & Commitment (Berrett-Koehler, 2000), Thomas argues that managers looking to get the most from their people need to design motivational programs that consider the intrinsic, as well as the extrinsic.

"We often are trained to look at the world in terms of economics," he says. "People engage in certain behaviors because of the positive consequences they expect. That’s what incentive systems are. You do something because it will result in some positive payoff. But what that leaves out is, ‘Do you feel good while you’re doing it?’ That’s the intrinsic side. Chasing extrinsic rewards leads to burnout. It feels bad – people bully themselves into doing things while going after bigger and better incentives, and it takes a toll."

Much of the difference is a matter of perspective, Thomas says. Salespeople who feel they’re providing customers with a valuable service and that they are genuinely helping customers are much more likely to feel intrinsically rewarded than those who operate in a more cynical environment where the goal is more focused on exploiting customers, he notes.

Thomas boils intrinsic motivation in the workplace down to four primary factors: sense of meaningfulness, choice, competence and progress.

"Effective managers, if they’re concerned about intrinsic motivation, need to talk to their people about these four issues – what’s meaningful about their jobs, how much choice they have, how competently they’re performing and how much progress they’re making," he says. "It’s the managers’ – or the leaders’ – responsibility to shape the way their people see events so they feel good and powerful in the way they interpret their work."

Intrinsic Motivation at Work is available through