Managing Effectively for Performance & Well-being with Extrinsic Rewards

Practicality and neuroscience shows us that the theory of intrinsic motivation always being preferable to extrinsic motivation is flawed. It is as impractical in the workplace as it is in life generally to think we can rely on intrinsic motivation alone to survive and thrive. We are all social creatures and the workplace is a purposeful social system – and that means that a large proportion of attention and effort needs to be oriented toward actions that support the needs of the organisation as both an entity and as a collection of similarly-purposed individuals.

The challenge then is in how to maximise the cross-over, so that individual and organisational satisfaction can be derived from the same action choices. What does that mean in daily management?

If actions and outcomes are to serve the (intrinsic) needs of employees and (extrinsic) needs of employers, commonality in purpose is highly desirable. For example, nurses are typically motivated to enter their profession because they want to care for and help others. If the institution they work for is perceived to be similarly dedicated, there is a synergy of purpose that naturally supports compatible priorities and actions choices, especially with good communication and management. But if the perception of nurses is that the institution is politically-oriented, power-based, budget-focused or, in practice seemingly more focused on things that don’t directly relate to patient care, then motivation compatibility is diminished, as is job satisfaction, engagement and employee well-being

Autonomy within structure rather than simple choice or unfettered freedom is also useful in finding a sustainable and productive balance. Greater choice has been associated with greater insula activation, leading some to suggest that choice itself enhances intrinsic motivation. Whilst that is arguable (the insula may simply be more active in exploring the emotional impacts of multiple options, and in any case too many choices can be disorienting and overwhelming), autonomy, where one has control over one’s own actions choices, is certainly motivating at the deepest subconscious levels. This tells us that maximizing autonomy within boundaries of performance and behaviour is likely to increase organisationally-oriented productive intrinsic motivation – and reward. This is also consistent with the basic need for orientation and control described by Grawe, as well as the workplace need for competence and autonomy described by Self-Determination Theory, as competence itself requires boundaries to be felt to exist.

There are some challenges here:

  • Where a task is intrinsically-biased (for example volunteer work), and then becomes overtly extrinsically rewarded (for example by paying volunteers for exactly the same work), an individual doesn’t become more motivated – there has simply been an exchange – perhaps a loss of autonomy, personal attachment (identity) or control, for a gain in financial reward. But when the extrinsic reward is removed, the feelings of control and identity are not restored, reducing overall motivation. This means that imposed extrinsic rewards (representing a loss of control or self) can diminish effort.
  • Where an extrinsic reward is granted in accordance to expectations and experiences, the level of reward triggered by the mesolimbic dopamine pathway is typically moderate and not an impactful experience – we see this with the temporary or small benefits of pay rises and bonuses. Where a reward is unexpected in timing or size, the dopamine hit is much greater (as is the learning from it), and the greater the impact (reward prediction error). This tells us that unexpected rewards are more highly valued and more effective in learning and shaping future behaviours (a tool that Casinos use mercilessly).
  • Where an extrinsic reward is related to unwelcomed pressure or complexity (e.g. a deadline, uncertainty or avoiding embarrassment) and requires cognitive capacity (e.g. problem-solving or creativity), the emotional distress, however slight, due to lack of control reduces cortical blood flow, in turn reducing the capacity for higher level cognitive thinking, concentration, collaboration and emotional management. In this way, increasing extrinsic rewards adds to the sense of loss of control, shifting intrinsic motivation from gain-focus (serotonin-oriented) to loss-focus (cortisol-oriented), in turn reducing performance in all but physical tasks. (Where tasks are simple, and focus requires allocation of effort rather than cognitive resources, increased activity for that specific task within the basic conditions of the reward is likely on the basis that an increased reward is more appealing.)

This shows us just how difficult it is for employers to control task-related attitude and effort, with reward initiatives often having upsides and downsides. Messing around with what people are already doing well, and being fulfilled by, is risky. Similarly, assuming published and predicted rewards will motivate more than the baseline set out by those rewards is likely to result in disappointment, and a view that employees only do what they have to in order to be rewarded – but hey, if you created the rules, don’t complain if others play by them! Perhaps most tellingly and easily remedied, rewards are all about balance – some things need to be externally rewarded, but how many? How far? How intrinsically-relevant can those rewards be? How many do you need to offer or impose – and how many can you allow employees to create and enjoy on their own?

It seems that the way extrinsic and intrinsic motivations coincide and how they are both rewarded, inevitably somewhat imperfectly and at times randomly, may well be key to sustainable discretionary effort, productivity and well-being. This will mean different things for different workplace environments, favouring smaller teams and more intentional, personable, empowering & responsive approaches to leadership and management. There will always be the temptation for employees and employers to fall back to tangible extrinsic motivation and fulfilment, but due to the fast normalising effect of reward prediction error learning, this can very quickly only set a new cost baseline for the business that soon attracts no more effort, and then only to the minimum effort required to achieve that reward.

This is a poor approach for the employer, as it mostly only serves to add cost, and the employee, as it often does little to improve basic need satisfaction linked to intrinsic motivation – in fact, the opposite can be true, where the higher and more pressing  extrinsic reward shifts locus of control more to the employer, reducing employee empowerment and, in turn, fulfilment and well-being, in turn refocusing felt rewards to those that are extrinsic and tangible, reinforcing the cycle.

In the Australian construction and mining industries where one particular union aggressively targets tangible extrinsic rewards, this cycle of high cost / low productivity correlates with suicide rates almost double that of any other sector and around 12 times the national average. This statistic is not conclusive evidence that demands for high tangible rewards are the sole cause, or even a cause, but deficits in intrinsic fulfilment are known to be linked to chronic stress, ill-health (mental and physical), incapacity and premature death. Clearly, an effort vs reward sum that is heavily biased toward tangible extrinsic factors is likely to be both unproductive and unhealthy.

Frustratingly, the ineffectiveness over time of predicted rewards in maintaining motivation and supporting learning is a problem for managers. Key solutions to sustaining superior effort and engagement must, in addition to fair predictable effort/reward sums, involve authenticity and targeted, meaningful and somewhat variable (published and spontaneous), but never unfair, “spontaneous” rewards, both extrinsic and intrinsic, with an intrinsic bias (directly or indirectly) being preferable for fulfilment and well-being. For managers of high performing teams in pressured and competitive environments, this is, without doubt, one of the most difficult challenges for which, unlike so much else in managing performance and behaviour, there is no universal script.