Why Intrinsic Motivation Is Better Than Extrinsic

Intrinsic means that we are doing something because we receive a sense of personal satisfaction from the activity itself. Extrinsic means we are doing the activity for an external reward, like money or appreciation from others. To accomplish our goals, we need to make sure they give us a sense of joy simply by pursuing them. Hoping for an extrinsic reward is fine, but if we don’t find ourselves getting lost in the process of working towards them, then the odds of us completing them is very low.  

Happiness is not something to be obtained, happiness is what you should be experiencing while you work towards your goals. Intrinsic goals that include making a difference and helping others will provide you much more satisfaction than extrinsic goals that just include a financial reward.  

When I was in sales, I saw this theory of extrinsic motivation put into place quite often. Management would have an early morning ‘rah rah’ motivational sales meeting. In a lame attempt to get us pumped up, they would play upbeat music, speak enthusiastically to the salespeople, and then dangle a secondary reward in front of us. They would shout something like, “The first one to sell a car will receive this $100-dollar bill! Now go get em!” Then everyone would hurry out onto the lot and wait like vultures for their first prey to drive in so they could pounce on them.  

Most of us were unmotivated by this Jackass theory of motivation. (The Jackass theory is based on how a farmer gets a donkey to pull the plow by dangling a carrot out in front of the animal in hopes that he would walk towards it while inadvertently pulling the plow behind him.) While selling a car to earn a paycheck was our objective; we also realized that making the first sale of the day had more to do with luck and less to do with motivation. The $100 bill was a nice bonus if achieved, but how were we going to make a sale if we didn’t have a willing and qualified buyer.  

What’s worse is that current research in psychology suggests that this carrot and stick motivation can lead people to stop trying altogether. If we perceive the award as unobtainable then a phenomenon known as learned helpless kicks in.  

We experience learned helplessness when we have lost all hope in our situation. In the sales example above, if you were the salesperson hoping to earn the $100 bonus, in the beginning, you might start out feeling excited about the possibility of receiving the incentive. However, if week after week you always fall short of your goal after putting forth the effort to win, your enthusiasm would likely begin to dwindle. As a result, you would start putting forth less and less effort, especially once you had learned that someone else won the incentive for the day.  

Management would have received better results if they had given everyone a bonus for selling a car that day. That would have kept everyone motivated to make a sale even after the first sale of the day had been accomplished 

Even better, instead of trying to motivate ourselves and others with extrinsic rewards alone, we should focus on intrinsic values that align with what is most important to us. Sales managers could take the time to help their salespeople acknowledge their purpose, values, and strengths. They could then assist them to associate those with their job of selling cars. The salesperson would now be internally motivated to help more customers and sell more cars, eliminating the need for ‘rah rah’ sales meetings that usually backfire. 

Sales managers could also take a coaching mindset and reward effort and not just sales. They could view every interaction the salesperson has with customers as a learning situation. Instead of making excuses for why they failed to get the sale, they could sit down with the employees and analyze why the customer didn’t make a purchase. In doing so, every interaction with their clients becomes a valuable learning experience which leads to self-improvement, improved confidence, happier salespeople, and in the end, more sales.

Question: What is your experience with external motivation? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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