Success and the single passion

What drives us can influence how well we perform.

If having one motive is good, then having two must be great, right?

Not exactly. New research by School of Management professors Amy Wrzesniewski and Thomas Kolditz shows that the type of motive matters. They studied two types: internal and instrumental. A doctor who wants to do well at her job in order to heal patients is guided by an internal motive (one inextricable from the work of medicine); a doctor who wants to do well in order to make money is driven by an instrumental motive (not integral—an add-on).

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, followed 11,320 West Point cadets in school and into their careers as Army leaders, for periods of up to 14 years. The two professors and their colleagues found that cadets with strong internal motives did better as leaders than those with a combination of strong internal and instrumental motives. Cadets who were propelled by instrumental motives—who entered West Point for a higher-paying career, for intance—were less likely to graduate, become commissioned Army officers, or be considered for early promotion.

But Wrzesniewski says the study’s findings aren’t as simple as “Love what you do”: the internally motivated cadets didn’t necessarily love the work they put in, but were instead driven by, for example, a desire to become good leaders.

How, then, should businesses work to motivate their employees? “You don’t remove the rewards,” such as pay raises or promotions for a job well done, says Wrzesniewski, “but these things should not be confused with motives. It’s far better to focus employees on the meaning of what it is they’re doing.”

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