On motivation and agency

There is a long academic tradition of research into huan motivation and goal attainment – the factors that compel people to strive towards and achieve a goal or ambition, whether to complete a work task, lose weight or do the washing up. On the one hand, those in the behaviourist tradition will show how behaviour in externally controlled and motivated; others will advocate the intrinsic motivation inherent int he work or task itself. Further, there are studies that show how attempts at using external rewards to drive behaviour undermine intrinsic motivation, this leading to poorer work, missed deadlines, and unsatisfied workers. This is the argument about performance-related pay – the work becomes meeting the externally-imposed targets which do not always correspond to doing the right thing. 

Deci and Ryan developed the concept of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in more detail in their Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT is based on the notion that humans are intrinsically motivated towards cognitive and social development and learning. In other words, this is inherent in our nature. Taking this further, SDT identifies three broad groups of motivating factors or needs that employees look to satisfy: the level of autonomy talks to the level of control or choice the employee feels over their role; secondly the degree of relatedness or connections to others, and thirdly the level of competence of the employee. 

SDT posits that all these are essential for the employee to function optimally within a role: for example, feeling a sense of freedom to do the task in the most appropriate way (autonomy), working towards a common goal with others (relatedness), receiving feedback as to their work (competence). In other words, once people are intrinsically motivated, extrinsic motivators, such as pay, become less relevant.  

Self-determination theory also offers three innate psychological needs to be essential for psychological well-being. These are the need to be self-initiating in the regulation of one’s actions (autonomy), to experience mastery and produce desirable actions (competence), and to feel a connection with and a sense of belonging to the social environment (relatedness) (Vallerand & Losier, 1999). The three needs are considered essential for optimal functioning and for human growth and development, as Decis and Ryan note: “intrinsic motivation, the inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore, and to learn.” 

The term extrinsic motivation refers to the performance of an activity in order to attain some separable outcome and, thus, contrasts with intrinsic motivation, which refers to doing an activity for the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself. Our view of human nature in turn drives the ways we structure and manage our organisations and groups. Self-managing teams are based on the theory that humans are intrinsically motivated; command and control and hierarchical structures are based on the theory that people need to be extrinsically motivated. 

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