Internally or Externally Motivated? Does it Matter?

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I'm an avid fan of Montessori education, which focuses on helping children develop a lifelong love of learning, learning for its own sake. In Montessori, there are no gold stars, no blue ribbons to be won, no honor rolls-and hence no parents driving cars with bumper stickers saying "My child's an honor student at ..." There are no pizza parties for reading 100 books. If you read 100 books, you get to enjoy 100 books-and that's huge. Learning is a joy in and of itself.


So I read with interest this post by Marko Mrdjenovic, a Slovenian Web developer and a manager for Zemanta, a content-suggestion engine for bloggers and other content creators. He says he wrote a thesis on motivation and that understanding the difference between intrinsic (internally based) and extrinsic (externally based) motivation is important in hiring the right person. I would submit that it's also important in helping a job-seeker research a company and ask questions during an interview to determine whether a job would be a good cultural fit.


Of those with intrinsic motivation, Mrdjenovic writes:

We are motivated by the fact that we're getting something done and by the feeling we get ourselves when we're done. We're not in it so someone can tell us we did a good job. We don't really care. A friend of mine once said: "It's for me. If somebody else likes it-great." We like to think that the more we get into the subject, the better we'll be at it and the better the result. ...

He quotes from Wikipedia about extrinsic motivation:

Common extrinsic motivations are rewards like money and grades, coercion and threat of punishment. Competition is in general extrinsic because it encourages the performer to win and beat others, not to enjoy the intrinsic rewards of the activity.

He says both have upsides and downsides.


  • The intrinsically motivated don't require a lot of supervision, and can be great if you don't have time for that. But they can be hard to motivate after the fun work is done and you're moving beyond the discover/explore/create phase. He also added: "We don't like when others interfere with stuff we're responsible for." My colleague Ann All has written that this might describe a lot of IT types.


  • The extrinsically motivated tend to need to be "managed" and can be demanding in their need for direction and measures of success. But they're easier to manage-often just a public pat on the back will do. He says they're a good choice for a company in a mature market out to beat its competitors and adds, "If you have an 'employee of the month,' you should hire extrinsically motivated people."


This difference can be quite important as a new generation enters the workplace. These young workers, who have grown up with technology, tend to prize regular feedback from managers and recognition programs. And there's a generational divide there about the level of "managing" they require.


But as Lisa Orrell, author of the book "Millennials Incorporated," told Ann:

Managers need to step up their communication and availability for the younger generation, not only to help with morale and motivation but also with retention.

She says these young workers are very open to coaching, training and crave mentorship. And as Millennials move into management, they will be bringing more collaborative work practices with them based on social relationships.