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Aligning Motivation with Organizational Goals

Adam Grant and Jim Berry
Posted: 06/23/2011

Tasks that result from the intrinsic motivation of employees are not always necessarily aligned with organizational objectives. There’s a danger when the novelty of ideas in itself becomes the appeal, according to research. HRIQ speaks with Adam M. Grant, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Management at The Wharton School and James W. Berry, Ph.D. candidate in Organizational Behavior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The researchers will discuss their findings and how to identify and improve the contributions of employees who are intrinsically passionate about their work.

How does motivation affect employee performance, specifically in regard to creativity?


Jim: What’s most interesting is the fact that for so long, we’ve believed that if you find people who are intrinsically motivated, it will solve all of your problems—that you can balance pay with intrinsic motivation, etc. What we find is that it’s a little bit more complex than that. You can be motivated by a number of different things: your own pure interest; external factors (i.e, rewards, pay, praise); or you can be motivated in a prosocial manner, where you’re motivated to help others. The pattern in our research is that when you combine multiple motivations, that’s when things get really interesting. When you have people who are intrinsically interested in the task and then you add on another component where they are interested in helping others, that’s where we see motivation multiply.

For recruiting purposes, how do you think you could measure if an employee is intrinsically interested in a task? What indicators should recruiting professionals look for in evaluating employees?


Jim: It would depend on the task itself, or previous work on the task. A lot of jobs have hobbies that are closely related to them. If the employee spends his or her time volunteering and doing a similar task, then he or she is probably intrinsically motivated to do it.

There are numerous instruments that we use in the academic world to measure intrinsic motivation.

The survey tools we use are some that have been validated within academic literature. Scholars such as Ryan Deci have done a lot of work with intrinsic motivation, and we use several of their scales in our paper to measure that. Adam himself has developed some scales for prosocial motivation, which is the desire to help others. That’s where we find there’s an additional benefit, especially for corporate America. If [an employee] is interested in doing a task to help someone else, such as a client, that’s when the pair of that intrinsic and prosocial interest really has a multiplying effect and can indeed be very effective.

I think the best way is through a structured interview process: ask what they’re interested in. That is really what intrinsic motivation is about.

Adam: I know of four ways to measure motivation, each of which is by itself flawed, but when considered in combination with other techniques can be quite useful.

The first approach would be to create a structured interview, where you work to understand what the applicants find intrinsically motivating. A common question might be, "Tell me about the most interesting job you’ve ever had. What made it interesting?" Followed by, "Tell me about the least interesting job you’ve ever had. What made it so miserable?" The hiring manager can do a comparison of those responses to the opportunities that are actually present in the job.

Option two is to get input in a more quantitative survey. In an interest survey, you present a whole list of tasks that are involved in a range of jobs and you ask them to indicate their level of interest in each one. What you find is, if you include a wide enough range of tasks, nobody says they are interested in everything. You can zoom in on which applicants are most excited about the tasks that represent the job you’re hiring for.

The third and forth options go beyond what the employee tells you, toward objective behavioral data. One way to do that would be to create a simulation, where you give the applicant some sample activities that represent key tasks in the job. Instead of merely interviewing applicants about how much they liked these tasks, you would observe and pay attention to how much interest applicants exhibit, and how long they choose to work on them.

If it’s difficult to simulate the task, the fourth option is a substitute which that we call a situational judgment test. Present a challenging scenario that’s common in this job, and have the applicant reason through it. Research suggests that this can give you a sense of whether the employee expects other people to be intrinsically motivated in this job, even in the face of failure and rejection. If so, that’s a pretty good indication that you’re looking at how intrinsically motivated the employee is herself, because in general, people tend to see their own motivations in others.

When you say that "intrinsic" motivation leads to creativity, are there steps that managers can actually take to help cultivate this motivation that will strengthen their productivity and lead to value-added outcomes?

Jim: I would caution you—intrinsic motivation linked to creativity is not always found to be stable. When you’re intrinsically motivated, you’re often involved in exploring the new and the novel. Sometimes you leave out things that can be potentially useful. It’s when intrinsic and prosocial motivation are combined, you’re more likely to get creative employee output and keep the focus on what may be beneficial for others.

Adam: As Jim pointed out, getting employees interested in the work is a great way to encourage the development of original and novel ideas. But, these ideas tend to be matched up with their own personal interests, and are not necessarily relevant to coworkers, supervisors, customers and different stakeholders that may be affected by those ideas. We found that you can also cultivate a concern for helping others, which leads you to take other people’s perspectives and focus in on those ideas that are not only novel, but also useful. This results in greater creativity.

Interview conducted by Alexandra Guadagno, Editor for Human Resources iQ

Adam Grant and Jim Berry
Posted: 06/23/2011