Hurray, it’s a beautiful day! I’ve been studying intrinsic motivation for 40 years and I’ve FINALLY been asked to write a blog post about it. Thank you Scott Russell, and C.A. Short Company, for this wonderful opportunity. Blog posts are short, and I’ve been known to drone on, so here is a BRIEF definition of intrinsic motivation.

The term “intrinsic motivation” is rather abstract, and vaguely academic, so let’s replace it with something more intuitive. Here is my user-friendly definition, “Intrinsic motivation consists of the natural pleasures of work.” If we turn-on these natural pleasures employees will work faster, better and smarter—and with a better attitude—because they feel more rewarded. If we add up all five of the natural pleasures, the sum is the intrinsic (or emotional) “paycheck” that employees find just as motivating as money.

From a business perspective, we OBVIOUSLY want to activate the natural pleasures of work, because it doesn’t cost anything, and people will feel twice as rewarded. We can essentially double their overall paycheck, FOR FREE. We’ve all heard of the 80/20 rule that 20% of the workforce completes 80% of the work. Well, the industrious 20% is more passionate and more committed because they get a non-monetary bonus tacked on to their paychecks. Maybe we should make sure EVERYBODY receives this bonus?

To cement this idea, think over your career-history starting with your very first job. Put the jobs you loved in column 1 and the jobs you hated in column 2. Next, see if the jobs in column 1 had anything in common. I suspect that the fun jobs activated one, or more, of these natural pleasures:

  • CREATIVE PLEASURE: The fun jobs may have given you the freedom to get ideas, solve problems and experience creative highs at work.
  • COMPETENCY PLEASURE: The fun jobs maybe encouraged you to master difficult skills and feel more capable, confident and walk a little taller.
  • PLEASURE OF ACHIEVEMENT: Perhaps you were recognized for your achievements in the fun jobs and experienced the “euphoria of a win” on a regular basis.
  • FAMILY FEELING: Maybe you developed meaningful relationships with your bosses and coworkers and experienced a warm, family feeling at work.
  • FEELINGS OF SECURITY: Finally, maybe you felt safe and secure in your position, and free from threats or unwarranted criticism.

My first job was in a factory in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My mother’s best friend owned the factory, so you’d think I’d have had a decent experience. Actually, I experienced NONE of the productive pleasures and my intrinsic paycheck was negative.

  • There was zero creativity involved in this job—so I experienced NO creative highs. I was expected to do exactly what I was told. For a creative person, this hurt.
  • I glued pieces of cardboard onto sheets of rubberized fabric, folded the fabric into an accordion-like shape, and then dabbed on some tar-like goo. My co-workers were women with more hand-eye coordination, so I basically stunk at this task—hence, there was no sense of mastery or confidence, and it hurt my self-esteem.
  • Since I was the laggard of this department, I rightfully received no atta-boys from the boss and no “pleasures of a win.” When we wrote our daily totals on a chalk board at the end of the day, it hurt.
  • When I punched into work in the morning, there was no social time and barely enough time to say “Hello.” The general manager, the son of my mother’s best friend, never even stopped by to check up on me. I felt alone and irrelevant, and it hurt.
  • Finally, I did not feel safe and secure. There were no ventilation hoods to suck up the chemical fumes we were exposed to. After work we washed our hands in a bucket of toluene to remove tar and glue residue. When I started feeling dizzy on my drive home, and experiencing muscle twitches, I quit.

So, as you can see, my first job was a thankless chore. It provided a painful intrinsic paycheck that negated what little money I earned, so I quit. Fortunately, I had the sense to leave after only 3 weeks--before my brain was permanently addled by the fumes. I was not a person in the factory, but a thing—a disposable unit-of-production in an impersonal environment and I hated it.

If the general manager had understood intrinsic motivation, he could have altered the environment to be a bit more ergonomic and human-friendly. The best leaders do this intuitively by making business PERSONAL and caring about their people.

My second job was as a lifeguard at a beach. This was a VERY positive experience and I experienced ALL of the natural pleasures of work. I worked as a lifeguard throughout high school and the first two years of college—and loved it. I am still friends with many of my co-workers over 40 years later.

You’d think all companies would tap into the power of intrinsic motivation and turn thankless chores into rewarding work, but they don’t. I will explain why in my next guest blog articles scheduled for 11/21 and 11/27. 

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