Select Page

Pleasing a boss is a reflexive thing to do. We may not think much about it consciously, but most of us attempt to make our bosses happy. Imagine your boss asking for something on a Thursday afternoon and telling you that it needs to be done by the following morning. Would your stress levels rise? Would you consider doing it that night or waking up extra early to complete the assignment? Why?

When it comes to pleasing your boss, perhaps you’re seeking approval or rewards, even emotional ones. Maybe you’re afraid of failing, disappointing your boss or being punished in some way. All of these reasons are called “extrinsic” motivations—they come from outside of yourself—while “intrinsic” motivations come from within. In this same scenario, intrinsic motivations might include a strong desire to achieve, gain mastery or engage in an enjoyable task or activity. You complete the task at hand because you want to do it!

If you think about work, most traditional deadlines or demands come from outside ourselves. In fact, most incentives are designed to elicit specific behaviors—a classic extrinsic motivational tactic. However, research (Self-Determination Theory: Ryan & Deci, 2000) shows that using extrinsic motivation decreases natural intrinsic motivation, which creates a reliance on outer rewards to generate desired behavior. This is problematic, since extrinsic motivation then becomes like an addictive substance: The more you use it, the more you need it, which can lead to imbalance.

Author David Morelli

Author David Morelli

I recently joined Daniels’ brand-new Executive PhD program. Getting a PhD has been a long-term goal of mine (intrinsic). The same month I entered the program, I accepted the role of Executive Director for Executive Education at Daniels, which is a dream job (intrinsic). The position involves meeting with executives to create customized programs for growing their multidiscipline leadership skills. I love working with these individuals (intrinsic) and I love learning (intrinsic). I also never want to let others down (extrinsic) and earning good grades has always been important to me (extrinsic).

With all of the things I love about the PhD program and my Executive Director role, you’d think everything would be perfect, right? Well, as I mentioned, extrinsic motivation decreases intrinsic motivation, and after only two months, I found myself primarily focused on not disappointing other people (my team, my boss, our clients) and striving to get exceptionally high grades (to look good in the eyes of my professors, bolster my ego, etc.) While I loved everything I was doing, it all started to feel like work. I’d allowed extrinsic motivation to cloud my natural intrinsic desires. Have you ever experienced this?

Here’s what I did about it, and what you can do too:

1.Strip away extrinsic consequences and expectations. I had to tell myself, “If I get fired and kicked out of the PhD program, so be it. I’ll figure out what life looks like at that point.” Yes, it’s a little bold, but you can’t use the “extrinsic override switch” forever. It takes too much energy to try to please others rather than yourself.

2. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this—what are my reasons?” Connect back to the enjoyment of what you’re doing and what you want, independent of what others want from you. For me, this is my love of working with our clients and my team, Daniels and learning.

3. Make an agreement with yourself to allow your personal desires and enjoyment to lead the way, regardless of the consequences. Why? Only your intrinsic motivation is sustainable. Also, if you do something for yourself, you’re more likely to get better results. I know that I have more vitality, energy, passion and achieve positive results when I’m driven by my enjoyment versus my desire to please others.

4. Align your external motivations—or in psychological parlance—create “integrated regulation.” Determine how your external goals are aligned and congruent with what you want. Allow them to spur your best performance. Outside motives shouldn’t be your primary drivers, but they can support your internal goals.

5. Jump into action! Once you’re aligned, practice doing the required tasks and keep your motivation at the forefront of your mind. This will help you connect your activity with your intrinsic drive. You might repeat to yourself, “I’m doing this for me!” or remind yourself why it’s important to you.

What if you’re a manager and you need to motivate your team? You can use the strategy I’ve outlined with others as well. Discover what your team members enjoy. Ask them what the goal or job gives them. This will help them reshuffle their motivational orientation and allow you to reframe their responsibilities, tasks and desired skills in terms of their goals. Offer support to help them develop strategies to achieve their goals, and follow up with them about their progress. This “dovetailing” of motivations—allowing their motivation to lead while also supporting the organizational goals—elicits better results on both sides.

So, whether you’re a boss, individual contributor or simply an individual in the world, allow yourself to reflect on the intrinsic and extrinsic forces in your life. Then, make the modifications that feel best to you, now that you’re armed with a little more knowledge and awareness.

Please visit DU’s COVID-19 website and subscribe to @uofdenver Twitter for updates regarding COVID-19.

Please visit DU’s COVID-19 website and subscribe to @uofdenver Twitter for updates regarding COVID-19.