Extrinsic motivation breeds more deviant behaviour in the workplace

by Michael Mata07 Oct 2016
While motivating employees to go the extra mile and exceed their job expectations is the goal of any good manager, it’s easier said than done. While some employees are intrinsically motivated to exceed their job descriptions in order to support organisational goals (such as training new employees or volunteering for new projects), most employees require some external motivation to go above and beyond their job descriptions.

External motivation often falls under the category of “soft coercion”—a mild form of pressure that can be conveyed in a manager’s tone with employees, or in incentives and cultural influences that managers use to promote positive discretionary behaviours at work. While soft coercion sometimes leads to good organisational citizenship, it can also have some unintended negative consequences.

According to a study co-authored by research academics Kai Chi Yam, Anthony C. Klotz, Wei He, and Scott Reynolds, employees often engage in organisational citizenship behaviours (OCBs) not because they want to, but because they feel they have to.

The academics inferred that when employees feel compelled to engage in OCB by authority figures and other external forces, they “feel psychologically entitled for having gone above and beyond the call of duty”.

These feelings of entitlement can act as moral credentials that mentally free employees to engage in both interpersonal and organisational deviance, such as bullying co-workers and stealing company property. 

To prevent deviant behaviour, the researchers recommend that managers shift their focus from extrinsic motivation to intrinsic motivation. The study advised managers to temper the urge to motivate employees to go above and beyond the job description.

“Leaders should customize their motivational techniques for each employee to tap into their intrinsic motives, instead of using a one-size-fits-all motivational technique that will feel controlling to many employees,” noted the report.

For example, managers should learn to rely on more informal rewards for employees who are intrinsically motivated, such as positive feedback and public praise for model behavior.

Managers were also encouraged to develop work environments that intrinsically inspire people to participate in pro-organisational behaviours.

“Empower employees. Adjust schedules and workloads to maximise each person’s capacity to be self-motivated. Hire people who demonstrate a natural inclination to be good organisational citizens. Communicate stories of employees doing exceptional work for intrinsic value over external reward.”

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