Flourishing Culture

Motivation That Works: Self Determination Theory Part II

September 30, 2016


There’s an unwritten rule when you speak at a conference:  Play nice with the other presenters.  They might be saying something you totally disagree with but you don’t call them on it.  Recently, the person who followed my presentation was speaking on the topic of external rewards and their impact on behaviors.  He was a great speaker but I kept thinking, “When is he going to talk about intrinsic motivation?” I have to admit it was hard to be quiet but I was.  His talk made me realize how important it was for me to write about this topic. 


People like extrinsic rewards.  It’s nice to get a $100 gift card for a job well done or to get your bonus when you make your numbers.  That said, the happiness we feel when we receive these rewards doesn’t last. This is supported by research done in the field of hedonic adaptation, or as it is sometimes called, the hedonic treadmill.  If we view our current state as neutral, these rewards lift us north of neutral but we quickly return to our current state.   Further, hedonic adaptation theory states that as we make more money, our wants and desires increase accordingly and at the end of the day, we don’t experience a gain in long-term happiness. In fact, we want more and more to achieve the original high, hence the treadmill analogy.


Self Determination Theory (SDT) states we have basic psychological needs:  the need for autonomy, competence and relatedness. (See blog entitled Self Determination Theory Part I.) When we pursue goals that satisfy these three basic psychological needs, we experience higher levels of well-being. We flourish and grow.


Consider the need for autonomy.  When people are intrinsically motivated, it’s interest in the activity that drives what they do.  Their actions spring from the desire to do something that matters and to contribute to something bigger than themselves. Compare this to people who are extrinsically motivated:  they take action to either receive a desired reward or avoid a negative consequence.   Extrinsic motivators can be given or taken away and have more to do with satisfying goals that others have set for you.  Intrinsic motivation comes from within, making it inherently autonomous.


In his TED Talk on motivation, Dan Pink (2009) quotes the research and makes the case that there is a “mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”  He advocates that companies in the 21st Century need to move the issue of money off the table and give people the autonomy to be self-directed.  In our fast-paced business environment, companies need employees to be innovators.  The “carrot and stick” won’t get you there. Intrinsic motivation, that is, creating the conditions where people connect to their values and their desires to make a difference, will.   

Click on this link to see Mr. Pink's TED Talk. 



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