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When Is One Motivation Better than Two?

Laboratory experiments have suggested that, counterintuitively, having both an internal motivation for completing a task and an external reward makes performance weaker. A study by Yale SOM’s Amy Wrzesniewski tested this idea in the real world, by examining how the motivations of West Point cadets affected their performance. The results have strong implications for how leaders can get the best performance from their organizations.

It seems logical, even obvious, that a system of bonuses will make a strong employee perform even better. But a series of laboratory experiments have suggested that adding external motivations like a financial reward can actually weaken performance. Prof. Amy Wrzesniewski, with Prof. Thomas A. Kolditz and other colleagues at Yale and Swarthmore College, found a way to test this counterintuitive phenomenon in the real world. Taking advantage of the fact that the United States Military Academy at West Point has for years surveyed entering cadets on their motivations for entering the academy, Wrzesniewski looked for links between cadets’ motivations and their performance.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Wrzesniewski and her coauthors found that cadets with strong internal motives, like a desire to become an Army officer, outperformed cadets with purely external, or instrumental motives, like getting a good job after leaving the service. More significantly, she also found that cadets who held both internal and external motives had weaker performance than cadets who had purely internal motives. They were less likely to graduate from West Point, less likely to be identified by the Army as candidates for early promotion, and less likely to stay in the Army past their initial five-year term.

“Most people would argue that if you have one motive for doing something, having two motives to do it is even better—that it would make your motivation more persistent, stronger, and so on,” Wrzesniewski says. But for West Point cadets, at least, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Why wouldn’t an additional motivation improve performance? The hypothesis is that, neurologically, the external motivation “crowds out” the internal motivation, complicating the task of staying focused on the task at hand. “Those are very different kinds of cognition to hold at the same time,” Wrzesniewski says. “The argument goes that one begins to chip away at the other.”

So what are the implications of Wrzesniewski’s research for how leaders outside of the military can get the best performance in their own organizations? It isn’t possible to remove external motivations—all jobs have a financial reward, for example. But managers shouldn’t encourage their employees to think of pay and other external motivations as the primary reason to do a good job. “It’s not that you should reward people less; it’s that you should not focus them so strongly on the instrumental rewards of their work,” she says.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Wrzesniewski and her coauthor Barry Schwartz discuss what their research means for the military, as well as for managers, educators, and others seeking to motivate better performance. “There is a temptation among educators and instructors to use whatever motivational tools are available,” they write, from bonuses to pizza parties. But emphasizing the rewards inherent in the work will be more effective. “Helping people focus on the meaning and impact of their work, rather than on, say, the financial returns it will bring may be the best way to improve not only the quality of their work but also—counterintuitive though it may seem—their financial success.”