Motivating Work- Dollars and Sensing


Age-old question: Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation… Is it better to offer monetary rewards/prizes/fear of replacement or is the idea that “I can be better” enough in the workplace?

Current occupation: Educator

Another great question!  I received this one from Kathryn, a high school teacher.  Her question began with an interest of how to motivate students to perform in the classroom (rigorous debates in education policy are outside my expertise).  Kathryn then thought about businesses.  Businesses need to motivate staff to perform.  How do managers or organizations do that?

Background… where I’m coming’ from…

One major area of theory that grounds my Ph.D. program at Carlson School of Management  is Organizational Behavior.  Organizational Behavior (OB) refers to “an interdisciplinary field dedicated to better understanding and managing people at work.” (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2001) The OB theories consist of studying interpersonal attitudes and preferences, and behavioral dynamics within organizational contexts.  Those attitudes, preferences, and dynamics are often then linked to some indicator of organizational performance.  Good background as OB will be my main lens for addressing this question. (NOTE: all lenses are inherently incomplete- as I previously noted here and here).

First, what is motivation? The textbook for our intro management class here at the University of Minnesota defines motivation as “the desire, stimulus, or incentive to pursue a particular course of action.” (Gulati, Mayo, & Nohria, 2014) Another text in Organizational Behavior defines motivation as “psychological processes that arouse and direct goal-directed behavior.” (Kreitner & Kinicki, 2001)  Perhaps the simplest definition, the Merriam-Webster defines motivation as “the act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something.” (2013) Given these definitions, how does one address Kathryn’s question? What acts or processes exist within individuals and organizations that give employees reasons to perform?

I’ll do my best to respond to an excellent and perplexing question by raising related questions.  First, what drives individual motivation?  Second, what can organizations do to motivation employees?  Lastly, I’ll give a note on fear tactics in management, and then create an evasive conclusion…

This is a lot to tackle.  Let’s think together! (It might even be rewarding!)

What drives individual motivation?

So what drives that motivation within individuals?  One set of discussions centers around extrinsic and intrinsic rewards.  Extrinsic rewards motivate by tangible means, such as compensation.  These tangible benefits are also easily comparable.  For example, if an employee sees a comparable difference in a desired reward (pay) based on a certain type of behavior (sales, for example), this may motivate them.  In contrast, intrinsic rewards are often associated with less tangible, personal factors.  Perhaps someone enjoys the challenge of their work, or the delight of customers, or the great time they have with their coworkers.  From this perspective, the employees psychologically process the mix of rewards from the organization and/or job, both extrinsic and intrinsic, when considering how much discretionary effort to give toward organizational objectives.

Additionally, recent research by Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, both professors of Organizational Behavior at Harvard Business School, has looked at broadening the discussion of individual motivation.  Rewards aren’t merely intrinsic or extrinsic in their modeling of motivation.  Their Four-Drive Theory (2002) utilizes evidence from evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and other fields.  Elements of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards are pervasive, and rarely work alone.  The four drives are described in the table below, with definitions and examples (applied from Gulati, et. al 2014).

Type of Drive Definition (loose) Example motivators
Drive to Acquire  Individual acquisition of scarce goods and social status
  • Rewards with competitive elements, like pay-for-performance
  • Pay is competitive in labor market
Drive to Bond Individuals’ desire to connect with others
  • Collaborative work environments
  • Organizational cultures with shared meaning/belonging
Drive to Comprehend Individuals’ longing to ‘master’ meaningful work
  • Job design- distinct and important roles in the organization
Drive to Defend Individuals’ desire to promote justice and defend against threats
  • Workplace rules that are fair, clear, and non-arbitrary with important rewards

What can organizations do to motivate their employees?

Well, I’ve already blown some of the surprise in the table above.  Organizations have many options for adjusting work settings to meet individuals’ needs and align behavior with organizational objectives.  The first option that often comes to mind is the structure of pay within organizations.  According to experts, pay structure should do three things. First, the structure should support organizational strategy.  What is the company doing?  What job function (or jobs) is critical to motivate for the company to achieve their goals?  Second, pay must support work flow.  The pay should create alignment within the business, valuing the same types of behaviors.  If work units A and B need to communicate, the reward systems should not cause them to have separate motivations.  Lastly, pay should generically motivate.  According to Milkovich and Irwin, experts on compensation, “the challenge is  to design structures that will engage people to help achieve organization objectives.”

Judging from the Four-Drive theory, it seems that pay isn’t enough.  In practice, this is obvious to anyone who has ever worked.  Employers must have a sense of employees’ needs and the alignment/misalignment with their reward structures.  Employers are constantly altering workplace policies and job designs, creating opportunities for advancement, and tinkering with other job enhancing tools.  Some organizations use work-life balance policies to allow employees flexibility.  Other organizations offer reimbursement for coursework that isn’t even job related! GASP!  Still other workplaces create pleasant work environments.  These actions may engender loyalty and motivation in their employees.

A note on fear of replacement…

A key element of motivation theories is that efforts depend on ‘arousal’ of the individual.  Few things bring more arousal than fear.  Much research in social psychology has focused on fear.  Dr. Robert Cialdini, former professor at Arizona State and perhaps one of the most influential social psychologists of our time, and his colleagues say that “fear arousing communications usually stimulate the audience to take action to reduce the threat.” (Goldstein, Martin, & Cialdini, 2008) Those researchers note one exception to the rule: when the audience is without a clear way to take action to reduce a threat.  In fact, research says this may actually paralyze all action- the opposite of motivation.  If a boss provides little feedback beyond “you are replaceable,” he or she should not expect that message is motivating meaningful action.  Though it is particularly difficult to get good research on negative supervision and leadership (see my earlier posts here and here), one can’t imagine the fear tactics work in the long-term.

Conclusion… sort of… again…

What can research tell us? Or, at the heart of Kathryn’s question, which rewards matter more, and why?  In organizational behavior, there is one answer to every question: it depends.  In the case of rewards, chapters of textbooks are dedicated to illuminating “it depends.” It depends on a laundry list of factors: job context, the individual employees’ differences, the organization’s business model, the labor market, and etcetera.

Basically Kathryn, I don’t know, and lots of smart people that study motivation don’t know either.  Nothing works all the time.  Pay is part of the equation.  The equation is much broader than pay. To hearken back to organizational behavior…. It depends….

So, my questions to you, the audience:

  • What motivates you to take action in your work?
  • Which of the Four-Drive Theory elements matters most to you?
  • Which of the Four-Drive elements does your employer seem to emphasize?

Join the conversation and comment below!  I’d be honored!


Goldstein, N. J., Martin, S. J., & Cialdini, R. B. (2008). Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive.

Gulati, R., Mayo, A. J., & Nohria, N. (2014). Management (1st ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.

Kreitner, R., & Kinicki, A. (2001). Organizational Behavior (5th ed.). New York, NY: Irwin/McGraw-Hill.

Lawrence, P. R., & Nohria, N. (2002). Driven: How Human Nature Shapes our Choices. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Merriam-Webster, Inc. (2013). Motivation- Dictionary and Thesaurus. Retrieved October 7, 2013, from

Milkovich, G. T., & Newman, J. M. (2008). Compensation (9th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.

IMAGE: By Carrot.svg: Nevit Dilmen (talk) Stick.svg: Nevit Dilmen (talk) derivative work: Nevit Dilmen (Carrot.svg Stick.svg) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


2 thoughts on “Motivating Work- Dollars and Sensing

  1. Pingback: sine.over.cosine. | The perils of high performance- motivation, rewards, and punishments

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