Saturday, 17 January 2015

On motivation and how it works

After reading several posts on LinkedIn about motivation, I decided to publish my research from uni so I can easily reference and share it online. It's a short, but interesting and informative text in the form of a literature review from a level-1 undergraduate subject on question: Could we apply Google's approach to motivation across the industry?

There was a case study that described how it works at Google - employees are carefully selected from the pool of candidates (favoring creative and innovative minds), they love what they do (in their words: delivering information to the world), they enjoy sharing the knowledge and helping each other, they are well paid and have great perks - basically everybody's happy and smiling while doing a great job and the staff turnover is very low.


Google is known as one of the best companies to work for. It is famous for its unique work culture and philosophy which continues to attract the best professionals in the market. Its approach to employee motivation has been studied by many researchers in an attempt to decipher the secret behind the force that makes workers to excel the way they do at Google. Schermerhorn at al (2011, pp. 346-366) explain that Google motivates its employees by providing maximum possible support in a variety of forms such as highly enjoyable work atmosphere, relaxed and playful workplace, physical and mental health care, small but frequent financial incentives in a form of rewards for personal and team achievements, and professional growth and development. In addition to these, Google also encourages its employees to network and collaborate in order to promote information sharing and team work, and makes them feel they are making a real contribution to the society by creating tools that help people access and use information and knowledge.

Many studies looked into how to best motivate employees and, as a result, various theories were developed. This review argues that it is critical to consider the context of the work when selecting the most effective approach to motivation, and understand the differences between creative and non-creative work. Intrinsic motivation is more effective when creative work is concerned since it is inherently interesting and enjoyable, while extrinsic motivation is more effective with non-creative work where efforts need to be invested in changing the perception of extrinsic goals.

Effectiveness of Different Motivation Factors

The most effective approach to motivation has been in the focus of many debates and researches for decades. Some of the most significant questions is how extrinsic and intrinsic rewards affect people and how these different motivation promoters interact when combined together. Intrinsically motivated behaviour is explained as an activity that is performed out of interest or enjoyment which satisfies the basic psychological needs such as feeling of competence, autonomy and self-determination. In contrast to this, extrinsically motivated behaviour is an activity that is performed in order to achieve a separable outcome such as financial reward or avoidance of punishment (Ryan and Deci 2000). Early studies, such as Deci (in Dermer 1975), found that making extrinsic rewards contingent on performance reduces intrinsic motivation. He experimented with students working on intrinsically satisfying tasks, such as solving puzzles and writing newspaper headlines, and discovered that students’ motivation decreased once a monetary reward was linked to their performance. Deci understood that this happened due to a shift in their perception. He explained that when people are doing something simply because they enjoy it, their intrinsic motivation is at a high level, but once they start doing it for an extrinsic reward such as money, the intrinsic motivation declines.

Burroughs et al (2011), in support to the Deci’s conclusion, also found that extrinsic rewards undermine creativity by reducing intrinsic motivation. They realised that extrinsic motivation causes a person to perceive a task merely as a means to an extrinsic end, rather than as an opportunity for exploration and cognitive play. However, they also discovered that certain moderators affect how people react when intrinsic and extrinsic motivation promoters are combined. These moderators were first researched by Hennessey, Amabile and Martinage (in Burroughs et al 2011) who speculated that the perception of the extrinsic rewards depends on their interpretation, either constraining or informational, and that rewards can actually contribute to intrinsic motivation if perceived as informational. This idea was further researched and interpreted by Dahl and Moreau, and Deci, Koestner and Ryan (in Burroughs et al 2011) who concluded that creativity training provides a feeling of increased competence, which improves intrinsic motivation through increased task enjoyment, and that rewards are then perceived as affirmation of a person’s internal creative efforts. Conversely, those who did not receive a training, interpreted a reward as a tool used to influence their behaviour. The results of these studies demonstrated that by combining creativity training with an extrinsic reward, it was possible to enhance the creativity of the outcomes.

Bhaduri and Kumar (2011) also researched the effects of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation on innovative work and, similarly to the results of Burroughs et al (2011), concluded that innovators are largely motivated either by purely intrinsic or a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Additionally, they segmented the innovation process into three stages, idea generation, experimentation and application, and observed the effects of different motivations on each stage. The results showed that intrinsic motivation is more important during the early stage of the process, and that the importance of extrinsic motivation increases when innovation is complete, awaiting application. Thus, they argued that intrinsic motivation is more effective when uncertainty is high, while extrinsic motivation is more effective when uncertainty is low, which is in contrast with Deci’s findings from 1975.

Hung at all (2011) conducted researches on effects of economic incentives on knowledge sharing, which is one of the important aspects of Google’s work culture and its success, and found that rewards did not cause measurable improvements in people’s attitude toward knowledge sharing. The results showed that extrinsic rewards act only as a trigger for the sharing of knowledge but, without creation of personal commitment, such rewards proved to improve motivation only for a short period of time. However, unlike Burroughs et al (2011) and Deci (1975), they did not observe any negative effects of such incentives. In contrary, the results indicated that intrinsic factors such as reputation feedback, and to some degree reciprocity and altruism, have significant effects on both quality and quantity of knowledge shared, which is in agreement with the results of the previously mentioned studies.

In contrast to the studies conducted by Burroughs at all (2011) and Bhaduri and Kumar (2011) that looked into effects of motivation on creative work, Ryan and Deci (2000) researched the effects of motivation on non-creative and monotonous work performed by students. Having in mind that most of the tasks students are asked to complete are not inherently interesting or enjoyable, Ryan and Deci investigated possibilities for students to internalise the responsibility and sense of value for extrinsic goals which are usually associated with low student persistence, interest and involvement. Students whose parents were more autonomy supportive were more mastery oriented, they spontaneously explored and extended themselves, while those who were overly controlled lost initiative and learnt less well. Ryan and Deci concluded that a feeling of competence or self-efficacy, accompanied by a sense of autonomy or self-determination, enhances intrinsic motivation and thus improves the quality of the end-results. Thus the research focused on the innate needs for competence, autonomy and relatedness. They developed a self-determination theory in order to make the distinction between behaviour that is and is not representative of one’s self. The theory proposed that extrinsic motivation can vary greatly in the degree to which it is autonomous. For example, students can do the homework because of the fear of sanctions as well as because they believe it is valuable for their chosen career. Both examples represent intentional behaviour, but the two types of extrinsic motivation vary in their relative autonomy, that is, the latter one entails personal endorsement and a feeling of choice. In order to address the question of how to motivate students to value and self-regulate uninteresting activities, and carry them out on their own and without external pressure, Ryan and Deci came up with a model of internalisation and integration. They described internalisation as a process of taking in a value or regulation. It is associated with two types of extrinsic motivation: introjected regulation, e.g. an activity which is performed in order to avoid guilt or anxiety, or to improve self-esteem; and identification where an external regulation is accepted as internal or personal, e.g. an activity is valued because it supports an important goal. They argued that with increased internalisation comes greater persistence, more positive self-perception, and better quality of engagement. Integration was described as a process by which people transform the regulation into their own so that it emanates from their sense of self. This happens through self-examination and acceptance of regulations as one’s own values and needs. These forms of motivation share many qualities with intrinsic motivation. The results suggested that the more students were externally regulated, the less they showed interest, value or effort, and they also tended to blame others for negative outcomes. On the other hand, more autonomous extrinsic motivation was associated with greater engagement, better performance, less dropping out, higher quality learning, and greater psychological well-being, among other positive outcomes.

Conclusion and Recommendation

The review showed that the effectiveness of different types of motivations depends on unique blend of characteristics of specific tasks and work being performed. With creative work, which is usually perceived as interesting and challenging, researchers generally agree that intrinsic motivation is critical because such work is a mentally taxing process and often requires sustained effort. However, when certain modifiers, such as creativity training, are combined with extrinsic rewards, such as financial bonuses, they actually deliver even better results than intrinsic motivation on its own. Actually, extrinsic motivation plays a significant role during the application phase of the innovation process. With knowledge sharing, extrinsic rewards acted merely as triggers and did not have any significant long-term effect. In case of non-creative work, the results showed that certain social contextual conditions can help people to become more self-determined with respect to extrinsic motivation. Thus less interesting and enjoyable activities can be performed without overly relying on external pressure. This can be achieved by appropriately addressing the feelings of relatedness, i.e. providing a sense of belongingness and connectedness to the person, group or culture disseminating a goal; competence, i.e. better understanding a goal and improving the relevant skills required for achieving it; and autonomy, i.e. internally grasping the goal’s meaning and worth. Once these needs are met, people feel more competent and related, but also self-determined, as they perform extrinsically valued activities.

The recommendation of the review is that since there is no universal formula that can be applied to every position within the same organisation or even less to every organisation in the same industry, organisations need to identify all relevant aspects of the examined work that can be used to determine the most effective approach to employees’ motivation in each specific case. However, Google’s motivation strategy may be successfully replicated, but only in organisations that rely on creative and innovative work, due to significant differences in creative and non-creative type of work and the employee’s perception of such work. The best approach when creative work is concerned is to hire people who are interested in and enjoy doing the work in question, that is they are intrinsically motivated, as well as to include certain extrinsic rewards such as financial incentives as feedback to the completed work. While with non-creative work it is important to focus on shifting the perception of extrinsic regulations in order for the employees to be able to internalise, integrate and perceive these as their own internal values and needs.


Bhaduri, S and Kumar, H 2011, ‘Extrinsic and intrinsic motivations to innovate: Tracing the motivation of ‘grassroot’ innovators in India’, Mind & Society, vol. 10, pp. 27-55.

Burroughs, JE, Dahl, DW, Moreau, CP, Chattopadhyay, AG & Gerald, J 2011, ‘Facilitating and rewarding creativity during new product development’, Journal of Marketing, vol. 75, no. 4, pp. 53-67.

Dermer, J 1975, ‘Research Notes: The interrelationship of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation’, Academy of Management Journal, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 125-129.

Hung, SY, Durcikova, A, Lai, HM & Lin, WM 2011, ‘The influence of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation on individuals' knowledge sharing behaviour’, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, vol. 69, no. 6, pp. 415-427.

Ryan, RM & Deci, EL 2000, ‘Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions’, Contemporary Educational Psychology, vol. 25, no. 1, pp. 54-67.

Schermerhorn, JR, Davidson, P, Poole, D, Simon, A, Woods, P & Chau, SL 2011, Management Foundations and Applications, 1st Asia-Pacific edn., John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.

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