In motivation research, intrinsic motivation means pursuit due to inherent satisfaction instead of external reward. Practitioners have also been drawn to this concept when designing jobs, as high intrinsic motivation has been consistently cited as a primary driver of workplace performance.
However, research has historically only evaluated intrinsic motivation’s effect on one task, whereas jobs are typically composed of more than one task–often up to five or six core tasks. Researchers (Shin & Grant, 2019) explored whether high intrinsic motivation for one task can lower performance on tasks that are less intrinsically motivating.
RESULTS OF THE STUDY
The researchers supported their hypothesis through two studies, a field experiment in South Korea and a lab experiment in the US. They found that when intrinsic motivation for one task rose above moderate levels, performance on that task increased while performance on other tasks decreased. This occurred even when individuals had the requisite skills to complete all tasks. In other words, too much intrinsic motivation for one task had a negative effect on everything else.
On the other hand, lower levels of intrinsic motivation on one task were associated with better performance outcomes for other tasks, and moderate levels of intrinsic motivation led to the best results. Taken together, these findings demonstrate a curvilinear relationship, which is also called an “inverted U shape” due to its appearance when plotted on a graph. It means that the best overall performance results occur at medium levels of intrinsic motivation on a specific task.
Further, the authors examined the potential role of common emotions associated with varying levels of intrinsic motivation, such as happiness, relaxation, anger, anxiety, sadness, and boredom. The researchers found that experiencing boredom, but not any other emotion, was to blame for the above findings. This means that high intrinsic motivation on one task leads to poor performance on other tasks due to the heightened disinterest in them.
These findings are important because employees are highly unlikely to feel high intrinsic motivation for all of their core tasks. However, it is still common practice to encourage and cultivate intrinsic motivation at work. Therefore, organizations may be unintentionally setting up their employees to perform poorly in areas of their job that are less interesting.
While this doesn’t mean that employers should shift away from intrinsic motivation, it does suggest that managers should take care to understand an employee’s interest areas and recognize how they may cause the employee to struggle to focus on less interesting areas of the job. Additionally, they may seek strategies for helping their employees manage negative emotions such as boredom. For employees, this means practicing self-awareness of one’s focus areas and interest. This can help employees manage their time more appropriately and avoid any consequences of poor performance.
Finally, the researchers suggest “tapering” as one method for mitigating the effects of heightened interest in one task. A practice borrowed from the sports world, tapering involves reducing exercise prior to an event when top performance is needed. In the workplace, when a job requires both highly interesting and boring tasks, moderately enjoyable tasks could be scheduled in between them as a way to “taper” down to uninteresting tasks and combat the boredom associated with them.
Shin, J. & Grant, A.M. (2019) Bored by interest: How intrinsic motivation in one task can reduce performance on other tasks. Academy of Management Journal, 62(2), 415-436.