Motivation and Performance – some quick theories regarding reward systems.

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As a professional coach and Counsellor with training in the psychology of human performance, I spend most of my days working with people who feel they are lacking the motivation they need to move through life smoothly achieving the goals they set for themselves. Many more are not sure what their goals are to begin with – which makes starting and striving extremely difficult! Then there are those who used to love what they do but are at a loss to explain why their motivation has changed so much towards the things they have always enjoyed. All of the above can be confusing and frustrating experiences, so what are some of the factors that may be influencing these people?



An obvious place to start is the choices an individual has made for themselves to begin with. If those initial decisions have been based on beliefs that do not match with the individual’s true dreams and passions (perhaps the beliefs belong instead to parents, teachers, bosses, friends, university tutors or  society) then any form of motivation they do find will be temporary and unsustainable. They will sense within themselves a constant battle between what they really want, and what they are actually choosing. This kind of internal conflict can generate negative stress to such an extent that overwork and/or boredom set in – both of which result in the person withdrawing from or sabotaging their efforts to reach a goal.


Motivation - status, financials, recognition, achievement

When it comes to the work environment, there are two useful theories on motivation and performance. The first is that we work for at least one of four main reasons:

  • financial return (work to eat and live)
  • social interaction (a sense of belonging, "I would leave but I really like the people"),
  • the recognition factor (identify, position, business cards, a place to go each day etc)
  • achievement orientation – the reward of setting goals and reaching them.

The idea is that for each of us, one of these motives is a higher priority than the others at any one time, but as non-work areas of our life change, so does our leading work priority. (This may be why staff who have been around for certain periods of time suddenly up and leave.)


Motivation - intrinsic vs extrinsic

The second is that internally generated motivation is durable, longer lasting and more stable than externally generated drive.

People motivated by external factors such as public recognition and money (to name a few) may be more susceptible to disillusionment when they are not receiving regular doses of these rewards. They are also less likely to feel that they have any influence or control over what is happening in their environment – which in its negative form can lead to blaming, pessimistic attitudes and low productivity levels.

The employee who feels that goals and rewards can be reached through the application of their own skills, ideas and contributions and who is motivated by internal concepts such as personal success, producing quality work etc is more likely to perform well for longer periods of time.

"US researchers have shown that people for whom extrinsic goals such as fame fortune and glamour are a priority in life tend to experience more anxiety and depression and lower overall wellbeing than people oriented towards intrinsic goals of close relationships, self acceptance and contributing to the community. (Richard Eckersely, "It’s the Weltanschauung Stupid!" SMH "Spectrum" 05.08.00).


Reward Systems

So, reward systems that recognise both team contribution (because it is important to the business) and the specific motivational needs of individual team members will be more successful than a ‘one size fits all’ approach to rewarding staff. This may mean dividing rewards into four different categories – each corresponding to one of the four categories listed above. And, encouraging internally-generated motivation in staff will provide a long-term solution to the issues of job satisfaction, retention and maintaining high productivity levels.

Any organisation with a structured performance management system can incorporate these concepts into their current system. Taking an extra 20 minutes to review the individual’s goals, needs and wants outside their work role will enlighten any manager as to what lies beneath their motivated or unmotivated team members. That will in turn provide a stronger base for either continuing to motivate individual’s based on their reasons for working, or finding new ways to encourage staff members who may have lost their original passion for the work they are doing.

Sarah Waldin is a Counsellor, professional Coach and HR Professional. She can be contacted via