I saw an interesting article in The New York Times called “The Secret of Effective Motivation” that presents research comparing the impact of “internal” vs. “instrumental” motivation. Internal motivation is a lot like having a purpose to achieve something of greater social good. Instrumental translates into being driven by external rewards. According to the authors of the article, internal motivation produces far better results on all measures, including instrumental measures. In addition, a strong focus on instrumental, or even mixing instrumental with internal, decreases performance. This isn’t really surprising; this finding is supported by a lot of research, including our own article, “Transformational Leadership in a Transactional World.” Without question, purpose is the strongest motivator and leads to better performance, even on the transactional measures. The real question is: Because this is so well supported by research, why do so many organizations continue to focus so intensely on instrumental measures as a primary motivator? I think there are multiple reasons for the failure to implement what is known about motivation:
- The conventional wisdoms are so strong (though not supported by science) that few people are willing to contradict the common assumptions, even if the science is overwhelming.
- Many organizational structures are built around instrumental motivation—particularly compensation administration—and reinforce the conventional wisdoms. As one sales manager put it, without these measures, how will I know whom I should reward?
- Most executives don’t know how to create and sustain purpose-driven cultures (unabashed plug: See “The Star Factor” to figure out how to do this), so they don’t at all, or their efforts are lame.
- Moving to purpose-driven motivation includes empowering others. Many executives are uncomfortable empowering others, in part because when people are purpose-driven, they’re more innovative (usually a good thing, but which can be disruptive) and less tolerant of corporate bureaucracy.