If your boss gave you a 50% raise, how would you feel? Will this make you happy? How about more driven and motivated to prove yourself?
What about the situations when you go to the store and are able to cash in your credit card points? Did this make you more likely to keep spending, so you can keep collecting points?
Most people would say “yes” to the above questions. And that’s a perfectly fine answer. After all, there is nothing wrong with being appreciated and rewarded for your hard work and effort, isn’t that right?
These types of recognition or inducements are just few examples of what’s known as external motivators (extrinsic motivation).
External incentives can’t quite measure up to their better half—the internal kind. This is what we are constantly being told by virtually everyone—from psychologists to coaches, gurus, career advisors, entrepreneurs, and the likes. It still does the job to get us moving, but not quite at the same level as its twin, and not for long.
Simply put, extrinsic rewards don’t hold up for long, we keep hearing.
And yet, there is also no denying that external motivation works. Quite well, in fact. This is why it’s still widely used today. It’s quick, tangible, it can often be specifically measured and adjusted (think bonuses) and provides a decent push in the right direction.
Therefore, it can be rather successfully used to get things done, to reach our goals and to even get us started.
What Is Extrinsic Motivation?
Let’s take a quick step back and agree on what external motivation is and how it works.
Extrinsic motivation (as opposed to intrinsic) means that we do something not for the sake of inner fulfilment (because we want to), but to gain a reward or avoid a punishment. It’s often that you don’t want to do something, but you must do it. It may feel more of an obligation rather than an activity that will bring you enjoyment or fulfilment.
External motivation comes from outside. It’s stems from things as money, recognition, fame, or praise. For instance, a student who does their homework because they fear parental sanctions is motivated extrinsically. In contrast, if they do it because they find it interesting or believe that this will help them practice and improve their skills, they will be internally driven.
Both types of motivation work to get us moving. But the intensity and the desire, and most importantly—the quality of our outcomes, can be a tad different.
How Well Does It Work?
Research confirms over and over that internal motivation is the preferred way to go, if a person wants to have a consistent drive to “do stuff,” to perform better, to improve themselves. In a previous post Why Is Internal Motivation So Powerful (And How to Find It), I wrote at length about why internal motivation generally tops external.
So, intrinsic incentives seem to be the winner, no doubt. But this doesn’t mean that we should abandon external rewards as being somehow “second-hand” or ineffective. Because this will be untrue. Extrinsic motivation is a good performer in its own right. When used properly, it can also deliver.
However, it comes with a small print.
Firstly, external motivators are susceptible to the so-called Hedonic treadmill (aka Hedonic adaptation). It simply means that we quickly get used to the good stuff. Research tells us that if you get a promotion, more money, a new car or a designer purse, the “high” has a very short life span. Soon after, you need a new push to get to that top-of-the-world feeling. It’s never ending, exactly like running on a treadmill.
There is also some research to attest that when we are extrinsically driven, the quality of our performance, persistence and creativity are not just as good as with the intrinsic motivators. It likely has to do with the “want to” vs. “must” state of mind. You start from a different mindset and you end up with a different result. No big surprise there.
Finally, studies tell us that extrinsic motivation can interfere with the internal one and actually decrease it. It’s a phenomenon called “overjustification effect.” Simply put, if you enjoyed doing something and started to get rewarded for it, your inner drive to do it will progressively go down. You won’t feel the same inspiration.
Regardless, external motivators can still spring you to action. After all, not everything you do can be highly enjoyable and fulfilling, right? But if you need to accomplish something that you may not quite feel like doing, extrinsic rewards often can push you through that extra mile you need to get to the finish line; especially when it comes to the areas of academia (think grades) and work (job, salaries and recognition).
5 Ways to Make the Best Use of Your Extrinsic Motivation
Here is how to get a better use of the external drivers to enhance your performance, reach your goals and improve your life.
1. A Quick Hit to Make Yourself Do Something.
How many times have you told yourself: “If I do X, I will treat myself to Y”? For instance, “If don’t cheat on my diet this week, I’ll allow myself a piece of cake on the weekend” or “If I work hard and get that promotion, I’ll buy a nicer car.”
The truth is, when we see the “carrot” close in sight, it can make us more determined to get it.
It’s called immediate gratification and it ties to a concept in psychology and behavioral economics, known as “hyperbolic discounting.” It’s our tendency to gravitate toward immediate rewards (“I’ll take $50 today) vs. benefits expected sometime in the future ($100 in 6 months). In experiments, people consistently take the “now” option over the choice to have more but later.
Same applies to motivation—although internal incentives can give us much more (including tangibles) in the long run, there is still level of uncertainty, because you often have to play the long game and wait for your passion to pay off, especially financially. There is also the question as to whether you can feel truly fulfilled to do things solely for your own gratification, even when no one recognizes your efforts, skills or accomplishments.
2. Make Others (Or Yourself) Do What You What
Convincing other people to do what we want is undeniably a priceless skill. And one of the best ways to achieve exactly this is…to give them a compliment. It can be in the form of a positive feedback or praise. But it’s an immediate reward that can work wonders on people.
According to research, compliments have a similar effect on the brain as receiving cash and can improve performance. Therefore, they are equivalent to a powerful motivational shot. Studies tell us that receiving acclaim can also improve performance. In addition, it can make you more productive, engaged and likely to stick around with your company a bit longer.
So, regardless if you are a manager who wants to give your employees a push, or to ask a friend to do you a favor, or even perhaps to make yourself do something you’ve been postponing—pay a compliment.
Of course, if you are always fishing for compliments or give yourself one too many, it may mean that you have a bit of a narcissistic streak running in your personality. Which, of course, will make you very vulnerable to the Hedonic treadmill trap.
Alternatively, if you are trying to make others do what you want by playing to their soft side, you may be overstepping in the dangerous territory of Machiavellianism.
So, when you give others or yourself compliments, and receive them, make sure there is some truth in them. Unearned praise can backfire, research has discovered.
3. Show Me the Money
Remember this epic phrase from the movie “Jerry Maguire”? Money is a controversial motivator, a multitude of studies tell us. We all have heard of the magic $75K number —the threshold after which move money doesn’t bring us more satisfaction and fulfillment.
Or, to put it in Arnold Schwarzenegger words:
“Money doesn’t make you happy. I now have $50 million, but I was just as happy when I had $48 million.”
And yet, money is still a powerful drive for many of us because of the many perks it brings to the table.
But instead of focusing on a number (“I want to have a million dollars in the bank”), think in terms of the benefits from enhancing your financials—mainly, the freedom it will give you and less stress and worry (about money). Or consider all the less fortunate people you can help if you had a little extra to spare—that can be a strong and the right incentive to go after more money.
4. Recognition and Kudos Are Not That Bad Really
Sometimes, our jobs require us to work long hours. And we often do it because we “have to”—be it because one has a deadline and needs to finish a project, to get recognized, get promoted, or simply—to keep your job. All of these are external reasons.
On the surface, it seems that the additional work is pulling you away from your free time, from the things you actually enjoy doing, from the people you want to be with. But that’s only one way to look at it.
What if you used the extra time on the job to focus on improvement—on honing your skillset, on perfecting your craft, on building knowledge? You can become good at what you do, the best even, without having to love every second of it.
Work, for all of us—regardless if you are an entrepreneur, a teacher, an accountant, or Bill Gates—will always have an element of obligation and having to push ourselves some days to get through the day or a difficult task.
But if you refine your competencies, there is a good chance you will also be recognized, promoted and respected. And who doesn’t want their work to be acknowledged after all?
5. Carrots and Sticks
The good-old carrots-or-sticks debate goes back probably few centuries back. Both are probably the most recognized and widely-used external motivator in the workplace.
“Carrots and sticks” simply means that in order to go above and beyond at what we do, employers use rewards (increase in salary, bonuses, recognition, positive feedback) or punishment (negative feedback, pay but, demotion). It’s been a hot topic with organizational psychologists for a while now as to what works better and if the rewards-punishments approach is even the best way to motivate people.
There seems to be more evidence to support the rewards camp, which includes all the things we discussed so far—money, recognition, positive feedback. These get better results as far as external motivators go.
But punishment also works. For instance, you are afraid you may fail your test, this may push you to study harder. If you are scared of getting an unfavorable feedback at your annual review, you will try to perform above average during the year.
You may not be happy or feel joy in doing these things, but the point is that the likelihood is you will do them anyway. Scaring yourself a little can be certainly beneficial—as in “If I don’t study hard, I will flunk the test” or “If I don’t start eating healthy, as the doctor said, I may have a heart attack.”
Although not the most pleasant ways to seduce ourselves into doing what must be done, punishment can also do the trick when it comes to motivation.
The point I’m trying to get across is that external motivation does quite well in certain situations and with certain people. It can be used to spring ourselves into action or make others do what we want them to. It can also yield rather predictable outcomes.
What’s more—it’s not shameful to be driven by extrinsic rewards. Of course, the internal ones are the better and more sustainable in the long run, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve your goals if you rely on external incentives. And because they seem to be more straight-forward and can bring foreseeable results, we all can and should use them to our advantage.
You simply have to be mindful that doing something purely for the glory, fame or money is not going to last. Remember the hedonic treadmill?
Maybe true success can only be found at the crossroads of the two types of motivation—internal and external. That is, enjoy what you do and reap the benefits of recognition and respect.
A piece in Aeon magazine beautifully sums it up:
“Success does not require recognition, but it is better on the whole that people hear your music, read your words, taste your food, than not. Moreover, though we should not place too much emphasis on the opinions of others, to have no regard for them whatsoever is supremely arrogant. Recognition is a kind of success, even though it is not the ultimate measure of it.”
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Featured photo credit: Candice Picard via unsplash.com