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Motivating Motivation: the socially mediated model

4 minute read

Among the various models to incentivize motivation in an organizations, the most basic one is the distinction of motivation between intrinsic and extrinsic. This is often used because compared to other approaches it’s simple, and provides an intuitive view on different sources of motivation.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic

It took me a while to find definitions of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that felt not just expressive, but also useful when working on the topic. While one can find good and solid academic descriptions, I prefer here going for definitions that reach a tradeoff between accuracy and the ability to make decisions based on these.

  • Intrinsic motivation has an internal source, and happens when doing the activity is a reward in itself. It’s rooted in curiosity and growth.
  • Extrinsic motivation has an external source, and happens when an activity is done to reach a future separate point. It’s rooted in goals and achievements.

An approximate yet intuitive way to explain this difference is that one is about the journey, the other is about the destination — or what happens once the destination is reached. I find this way to describe the two particularly useful because it also highlights that in some instances the action being done might be the same, but intrinsic for one person and extrinsic for the other.

We can imagine someone that hates walking but wants to reach the top of a mountain, compared to a person that loves walking, both on the same trail. They will both reach the top of the mountain, but their own lived experience is going to be radically different.
We can imagine someone dealing with customers because they enjoy helping other people, compared to someone that does that to reach a sales target and get a bonus.
We can imagine someone building their own company because they want to be rich, compared to someone that believes in the company mission itself.

A mediating element

Working on intrinsic motivation in organizations is hard, sometimes impossible, which means that most of the management articles on the topic tend to focus on the extrinsic aspects, and specifically two ways to incentivize extrinsic motivation: rewards and recognition.

If we look closely, recognition however doesn’t entirely fit the definition of extrinsic motivation: it has elements of intrinsic motivation. From a theoretical angle, we can notice how one of the main elements of self-determination theory, relatedness, isn’t exactly internal to the person. Similarly, there are studies that found out how a certain kind of praise can influence intrinsic motivation:

“Provided that praise is perceived as sincere, it is particularly beneficial to motivation when it encourages performance attributions to controllable causes, promotes autonomy, enhances competence without an over-reliance on social comparisons, and conveys attainable standards and expectations”

J. Henderlong, M. R. Lepper (2002)
The effects of praise on children’s intrinsic motivation

Once we realize intrinsic motivation is connected to social behaviours, and similarly extrinsic motivation is likely to have social elements to it — with few exceptions — then we can use a socially mediated model that has not two but three components:

  • Internal locus
  • Social locus
  • External locus

The social locus is special because it can impact both the internal and the external ones. If we think for a second that humans are inherently social animals, and how much of the identity of the individual is based on the relationship with others, we can see clearly how the social locus has strong effects on intrinsic motivation, even if technically the source is external like extrinsic motivation.

“Extrinsically motivated behaviors — those that are executed
because they are instrumental to some separable consequence — can vary in the extent to which they represent self-determination”

R. M. Ryan, E. L. Deci (2000)
Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions

A way to frame this in a more intuitive way is this:

  • Internal locus: “I want to find a way”, it’s driven by satisfaction.
  • Social locus: “We can find a way”, it’s driven by recognition.
  • External locus: “Give me something to be on this way”, it’s driven by rewards.

There are more complex models, like Ryan and Deci’s one that splits extrinsic motivation in four categories (external regulation, introjection, identification integration), but this approach in my experience is more intuitive in the day-to-day.

The organizational sweet spot

Given that intrinsic motivation is almost impossible to influence (at least without a lot of experience and 1:1 coaching) and that extrinsic motivation can drive negative behaviours (killing both creativity and intrinsic motivation), it emerges that the middle element in the socially mediated model is an excellent point of leverage. Organizations can use this social locus by setting up a proper plan for recognition, training its managers, and being more careful with rewards. This can create an impact that isn’t just exploitative (like many extrinsic reward systems) but can bring value to both the organization and the individual.

Unfortunately, while extrinsic reward plans are very widely adopted in almost any industry due to their simplicity, recognition is something that is often left to the individual manager, which most of the time lacks adeguate training and structure to be effective.

By using the socially mediated model we can focus on three things to drive motivation in an organization:

  1. learn more about intrinsic motivation, and specifically the self-determination theory.
  2. train and introduce more structure specifically around recognition.
  3. reduce or remove entirely any reward system, as it acts as a dampener on the other two kinds of incentives.

The socially mediated motivation model, combined with these three pragmatic steps, can provide a solid starting point to any motivation work.

Further readings