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  • Writer's pictureVeit Hailperin

Burnout Due to Intrinsic Motivation

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Although everyone affirms their full commitment to the company, its values and work during a job interview, statistics tell a different tale: 67-84 percent of employees have a non to low emotional engagement. This costs money, time and customer satisfaction. Not to mention the negative impact on the health of the employees. A logical conclusion is to assume that we need more intrinsic motivation. Unfortunately, it is not quite that easy. Intrinsic motivation comes in different flavors, of which some do more damage than good.

You know him. The boss says: Every employee loves their job. The emotional engagement statistics do not apply to his company. Everyone loves staying a bit longer from time to time. They have beer in the fridge and a Playstation. Has he ever considered surveying employee satisfaction? No, and it’s not necessary. He knows his employees

Is he off? Probability is not in his favor. Most likely it is a mix-up of two inner states. This is no surprise - they look very much alike.

Extrinsic Motivation is Outdated

Praise or blame? Positive or negative reinforcements? In 1957, american behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner postulated the reinforcement theory. Abridged, it states how “desirable” behavior can be achieved: by positive or negative reinforcement. The idea is anything but new. Martin Luther wrote in 1537 in his exegesis of the letter to the Ephesians of “apple and rod” which is equivalent to the wider known “carrot and stick”.

Extrinsic motivation works, but has undesirable side-effects. If a company tries to positively reinforce engagement with money - because quite obviously all humans ever wanted is money - it will lead to worse results. Not only has this been confirmed by meta analysis studies by professor Edward Deci from the University of Rochester or the results from Bernd Irlenbusch from the University of Cologne who was able to demonstrate the decrease of performance when money was used as reinforcement. This fact has actually been known since at least the 1960s. The reason is simple. Extrinsic motivation kills intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation is always weaker.

Despite this knowledge, there are still science-friendly companies in 2019 who consider it a good idea to introduce bonuses as measure to boost motivation and performance.

What’s the highest maxim of a good boss? A good boss motivates his employees through shining example and praise. So-called social reinforcement. That works too. If being boss means: Spreading vast amounts of energy that peters out in the end. Language gives insight, thus a closer look might shed some light. The boss (subject) motivates (verb) his employees (object). The employee is the object of that action. The employee doesn’t act. Motivation is added externally. Leading by example is for sure better than bonus or money, but don’t let someone pull wool over your eyes. A motivating boss is still extrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation is inefficient.

Extrinsic motivation follows the norms of authoritarian ethics. Someone knows what is desirable and good for others. This someone wants a certain behavior by others for his own gain. This is not reconcilable with humanistic ethics.

Intrinsic Motivation is Not All The Same

By now it’s obvious; intrinsic motivation is the solution. The boss knows: Intrinsic motivation is endogenous. Employees whose hobby turned into their profession are obviously intrinsically motivated. They like spending a few more hours in the office, because they like what they do. For the same reason they don’t want to work part-time. In their leisure time they enjoy developing themselves further in that field and it is good for the company.

Does this need closer examination?

Psychoanalyst and one of the most important humanists of the 20th century, Erich Fromm, states that humans have two ways of acting. Either active and from within oneself or passive, being driven. Activities are characterized by inner productivity. Passivity by the absence of inner activity. In the context of work, that would mean that with passive-intrinsic motivation, the energy or power stems amongst others from fear or the feeling of not being sufficient. At first impression that sounds harsh. But simply think of it as the end of a spectrum. Each action can be either active or passive.

Imagine the image of a running man. Does it reveal if he is active? No. We are lacking part of the picture. The part we can’t see could feature a second person chasing him with a knife. In this case, the man would absolutely be driven. But the second person could also simply be a jogging companion and thus the whole picture could be an expression of an active relationship. Whatever it is we don’t see in the picture, the motivation for running is hidden to us. The happenings of the subconscious and whatever is motivating an action, we can’t see.

Internal and external passivity also don’t necessarily correspond: Picture someone who is sitting with closed eyes. Perhaps this person is totally empty. But possibly she is highly active, concentrated and meditates, or she ponders on how to optimally present the recent quarterly figures to the board.

Job performance can’t be used as measure either. Despite active-intrinsic motivation generally resulting in better results over a period of time than passive-intrinsic motivation, the contrary can be in the offing: Especially with high performance jobs like you can find at universities, you will discover many driven people. One distinguishing feature is that these people often don’t look after themselves. Instead they pay attention to what is desired or demanded of them. It doesn’t matter if explicitly or implicitly. Or setting the focus on success. Maybe they even look like they would respect themselves, since they do sport, quickly do some yoga on their way home and lead a relationship. Purpose-free time is scarce. An intrinsic motivation can always be active as well as passive.

On the other hand active-intrinsic motivation can lead in the short term to less saleable output. What active-intrinsic motivation surely doesn’t lead to is a burnout - which economically is far more expensive. Burnout can be understood i.a. as a missing relationship to oneself and to the world. When nothing speaks to you. The world becomes gray. When each interest is gone and so is the strength to do something.

Passive-intrinsic costs a lot of energy. Active-intrinsic motivation gives energy. Who loves, will love with more ease. Who uses their creative powers, will create with more ease. When you light a candle, it will burn. It’ll be gone. If you are actively engaging with a topic, you’ll engage with another topic more easily in the future. Active-intrinsic motivation is like a muscle you train.

Intelligent employees will be better at hiding their emptiness. Both from themselves and others. Work can be a possibility to escape. Their rationale as to why they need to work a little longer is probably most of the time plausible. This is a necessary survival strategy. To become conscious of one's own emptiness is not a pleasant experience. Just like any other action, work can be an expression of an active relation to oneself and the world. Work is even essential. Fromm would say that humans want to work, just not alienated. Hence another distinct feature of active-intrinsic motivation is that the integrity of a person is maintained. The person will not abandon themself.

It is probably due to the fact that both intrinsic motivations constitute stronger motivation than extrinsic motivation, that in the popular discussion active-intrinsic and passive-intrinsic are usually not distinguished.

Active employees are more productive and won’t regularly work ten hour work days, but only as an exception. Real interest (lat. inter-esse, being in it), a prerequisite to inner productivity, can not exist only for one matter.

Inner activity and active-intrinsic motivation can be nurtured with a good corporate culture and its dividends will come in form of both financial and human.

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