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What really motivates us?

According to a recent article in The New York Times, a recent study by two university researchers (at Yale University and Swarthmore College) revealed some interesting and perhaps counterintuitive conclusions about just what motivates human behavior and performance.

The authors broke motivation down to two types: intrinsic and extrinsic (or as they refer to it, “instrumental motives”). Conventional wisdom holds that extrinsic motivation, the quest for recognition and reward, is the best driver and the most reliable predictor of success.  Some argue that both types in combination (that is, a balance between internal motivation and the desire for acknowledgment from external sources) is better still. However, according to the research findings, neither is true.

In a controlled experiment, the research project focused on 11,320 cadets in nine entering classes at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.  Each of these entering cadets was asked to rate his or her motives for deciding to enroll in the Academy. The choices included the desire to establish a network of solid business contacts and gain skills that would ensure future success in business of the professions and the desire to be trained as a leader.

The results were surprising, even to the research team. The cadets who entered the academy with the pure and simple motivation of learning how to be an effective leader did far better (higher graduation rates, longer tenure past their five year commitment, higher levels of promotion and rank) than those who entered with primarily extrinsic (instrumental) motivation.

But that’s not all. Here is the really surprising part. They even did better than those who entered the Academy with high levels of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. What does this mean?

Maybe we have it wrong. While there is nothing wrong with recognition and reward (provided it is genuine and it is for specific activities and accomplishments, real, meaningful accomplishments), relying on that to determine future success may not be the best predictor after all. Rather, the reward is best when it comes from within: the pride in a job well done, the quest to learn in order to achieve higher levels of utility and value.

In his classic work, Steppenwolf, Herman Hesse chronicles our enduring quest for happiness, satisfaction, and the very idea of a life well lived. His subject examines all manner of self-indulgence only to ultimately discover that it is the selfless act of serving others, without measure, recognition, or reward that brings the highest levels of satisfaction and enduring happiness.

Joe Truncale

About Joe Truncale

Joe Truncale is a frequent speaker at industry and association events. As NAPL CEO, his primary role is to oversee that NAPL remains true to its mission to help member companies stay ahead of the curve in responding to everchanging market challenges and influences. He is a foremost authority on strategic leadership and soughtafter facilitator for company management and group meetings.

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