The current pandemic and the associated restrictions on our everyday lives are leading to increasing dissatisfaction among many people. However, dissatisfaction with one’s own situation is not a new phenomenon. Many people are plagued by a general lack of drive and wait for other people to give them incentives to act, instead of taking action themselves and trying to realize their wishes and goals. Probably everyone knows what it feels like to be motivated, yet few are able to explain where the motivation comes from. If it is already difficult retrospectively to justify the origin of motivation, the question arises how to motivate oneself in the first place. This post is intended to help better understand the motivational process and provide food for thought on how to motivate yourself and those around you to take active and purposeful action.
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Before explicitly discussing the motivation process, this insertion will first look at how satisfaction can arise. Frederick Herzberg’s two-factor theory, which has particular implications for the professional world, has shaped our understanding of when and how (work) satisfaction arises. He first distinguishes between hygiene factors and motivators in the satisfaction spectrum. While hygiene factors (e.g., an appropriate salary) are able to reduce dissatisfaction, motivators (e.g., responsibility) are able to lead from a neutral state to satisfaction.¹ Even though it has been empirically shown that the clear assignment of the various factors to one of the two areas is not viable in practice, this distinction nevertheless provides interesting insights, particularly for operational application.
In psychological terms, motivation describes a state that indicates the direction, intensity, and persistence of one’s own willingness to act in relation to a specific objective. Essentially, a distinction is made between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines these two forms of motivation as follows:
“Intrinsic motivation: an incentive to engage in a specific activity that derives from pleasure in the activity itself rather than because of any external benefits that might be obtained.”²
“Extrinsic motivation: an external incentive to engage in a specific activity, especially motivation arising from the expectation of punishment or reward.”³
Following this understanding, both the action itself and the consequences associated with an action can motivate a person to perform or not to perform this action. To understand this better, it is worth taking a closer look at the different phases of action.
Own Illustration. Based on Vroom (1964)⁴
Every effort leads to a performance, which in turn results in an outcome. In the case of intrinsic incentives, the action is performed because the acting person attaches a value to the action as such. In the case of extrinsically motivated actions, on the other hand, the subjective value for the acting person results from the outcome associated with the action. In practice, however, it is not sufficient to confront a person with a desirable outcome – e.g., in the form of a reward. Whether a person actually acts on the basis of an offered outcome depends on a more complex process. First, the outcome must have a subjective value for the acting person (valence). In addition, one forms expectations as to whether one’s own action can lead to a performance that is suitable for realizing the offered outcome (instrumentality). Consequently, a person can only be extrinsically motivated to act if the outcome offered is of value to the person and the person feels able to perform the action in such a way that the performance also leads to the desired outcome.
The biggest challenge regarding motivation is that it is not directly observable. Most attempts to measure and/or quantify motivation are based on inferring motivation from the observable action and the observable outcome. However, the factual quality of such inferences is at least questionable. Even if it is difficult to find valid explanatory approaches, research in this area is nevertheless relevant because the state of motivation can be understood as a kind of energy source that enables one to take up a goal-oriented action.
Moreover, motivation is not only important for personal success, but also for organizations, which benefit when everyone involved is motivated and satisfied with their job situation. In practice, however, it can often be observed that organizations try to create incentives via hygiene factors. If one follows Herzberg’s delineation above, however, these are not suitable for achieving satisfaction, or only to a limited extent. If organizations want to retain their employees and foster loyalty, they should instead focus more on motivators. From a financial point of view, suitable motivators may even be more favorable for an organization, but identifying them often involves a great deal of effort, as they can vary from person to person.
In practice, intrinsically motivated actions are mostly observed in the context of leisure activities, whereas extrinsic motivation is predominantly found in professional life. This arises from the nature of things, since the pursuit of a profession is usually linked to the need to generate an income. Thus, the pursuit of the occupation is mostly driven by the incentive of the wage as a consequence of action. However, people can also independently motivate themselves extrinsically by rewarding themselves for successful actions and thus providing the desired outcome independently of others. One problem with extrinsic incentive structures, however, is that they can lead to dependency, since when the incentive is lost, the desired action is no longer taken up. The action is also not taken up if changed circumstances lead to the expectation that one’s own action is no longer sufficient to achieve the required performance. In addition, it is conceivable that saturation sets in, so that an increase in external incentives is needed to motivate a person to act. This is particularly conceivable in the case of repetitive actions. In general, it must always be taken into account with extrinsic incentives that they only have a motivating character if the outcome has a subjective value for the person, the performance leads to the desired outcome and the person is convinced that he or she can perform the action in such a way that the required performance actually occurs.
With regard to the initial question, it must be emphasized that the process of motivation is exceedingly complex and that no model solution exists as to how one can motivate oneself or the people around one. Decisive for whether and how a person can be motivated are the individual value attributions and the character of the individual. In order to maintain the motivated state in the long term, it is important that not only external incentives are used for motivation. Intrinsically motivated actions and the focus on appropriate goals enable consistency with regard to action behavior. To do justice to the importance of goals in the motivation process, we will explicitly address goal setting in another post.
¹ Herzberg, Frederick, B. Mausner, B. Snyderman. 1959. The Motivation to Work. New York: Wiley.
² American Psychological Association. N.d. “APA Dictionary of Psychology”. APA. Accessed January 22, 2021. https://dictionary.apa.org/intrinsic-motivation.
³ American Psychological Association. N.d. “APA Dictionary of Psychology”. APA. Accessed January 22, 2021. https://dictionary.apa.org/extrinsic-motivation.
⁴ Vroom, Viktor Harold. 1964. Work and motivation. New York: Wiley.