I was in the marching band in high school. Trumpet and French horn. I was no great musician, but I especially enjoyed the camaraderie. During the summer we all had to participate in band camp, where we learned the music and the show we would perform at football games and in competitions. (There was no actual camping, by the way. Not sure why it was called a camp.)
It was tedious and hot. Georgia-in-August hot. Putting the show in during the first days of camp took a lot of do-overs as everyone was learning where to go and when. After the band director would stop the show to correct something, we were then exhorted to hurry back to the sideline of the field to start over.
Well, it was hot. And tedious. And most teenagers in August who were waking up early maybe for the first time all summer are inclined to move slowly as they do this hard thing. And the director and the band officers would implore everyone to hurry, to run to get back to the starting point. It was mostly a futile effort getting a hundred high school students to run in the August heat across a dusty field.
I, however, was that kid who made a game out of it. I put a smile on my face and raced back across the field to the line every time, cheering and acting silly as I passed by many of my fellow band members. If I was going to have be out in the heat of an August day in Georgia doing this band practice, I might as well try to have fun.
If I’ve got a choice (and I do), I’m going to choose to be happy. And sprinting across the field at band camp while joking with friends made the tedium less tedious and added a dash of fun. I hoped to make someone else smile along the way as well. There were always a few of us who chose to make it fun.
Not many of my classmates, though, chose a similar response. Most dragged their feet and complained the whole way back to the line. Getting the band back in place to start over was a chore every time.
One day the director gathered the band up as practice was starting and offered a challenge. He would give fast food gift cards to those band members who showed the most spirit and energy running back to the line that day.
Well, every time we stopped and had to start over that day, the whole band went crazy, running back to the line with hyped up glee, yelling and cheering. One of my friends, who could have been the poster boy for the feet-dragging whiners previously, was all of a sudden Mr. Spirit, whooping and running each time we had a do-over.
Almost everyone seemed to be responding to this new motivational tactic. Except, it seemed to have the opposite effect on me. I hurried back, but not with my usual enthusiasm. Now, with a prize at stake, my motivation was gone. I didn’t want to be seen as faking it just to get some free food. And I did not win a spirit award that day. My friend, Mr. Spirit, did.
I remember feeling perplexed by my response. Why had I been bothered by the reward? Why was that enough to tone down my enthusiasm?
The reward for me previously had been an intrinsic one. It was the fun I had doing the thing. But when the reward was a free hamburger and being acknowledged in front of my peers, I put the brakes on. I didn’t understand the psychology then, but I now know that the extrinsic inducement sabotaged my motivation that day.
The next day at band camp there were no more gift cards to be awarded. And everyone went back to business as usual, with just the usual few choosing to delight in running back to the line just for the sake of it, not for any prizes. Those rewards had a very limited impact.
I know there is research now showing that extrinsic rewards turn out to have limited success and work primarily for tasks requiring a low level of mental and emotional investment. Bonuses and prizes and other external payoffs just don’t have the impact and staying power that everyone assumes.
Intrinsic rewards, though, are where the real juice is, especially for higher level work and organizational excellence. Finding how to tap those for yourself and those you lead can open possibilities for deep satisfaction and exceptional performance.
Check out Dan Pink’s TED Talk explaining what he discovered about the power of intrinsic motivation.