For many years, society has had a great interest in studying motivation. Business owners want to know what motivates their employees to be successful, to reach higher, and value work well done.

Long ago, employers noticed that two employees earning equal pay and promised equal raises were unlikely to deliver equal quality. They concluded quickly that people were motivated by something beyond salaries—and perhaps that different people were motivated by different incentives.

The same situation occurs in classrooms. Given the same learning potential in the same environment with the same teacher, why is student achievement spread over such a wide range? Clearly, something external—or something internal to the student—must account for the differences.

Theories on motivation are numerous. Many have risen to popularity because of their appeal to the public imagination, but have not withstood further research or the test of time. Others are appealing because they are counterintuitive or surprising.

Inspiration comes from watching others. Motivation comes from within. — Author Unknown

While we don’t intend to pursue an extensive explanation of current theories of behavior related to motivation, we will explore good ideas that have roots in modern research.

Where Does Motivation Come From?

Many theories of motivation seek to identify categories of motivators. A number of theories are based on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation includes the motivators that come from “outside”—from other people, situations, events, and environments.

For example, some workers may be motivated by raises in pay, accolades, promotions, bonuses, vacation time, or the corner office. Others, on the other hand, may have intrinsic, or internal, motivators such as personal pride, their love of the work itself, a strong work ethic, or a particular value system.

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Of course, the theories of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation have been broadened to accommodate more labels or to refine them for particular groups of people. One example is the theory that, in addition to the two categories mentioned, a third set of motivators exists. A particular motivator may initially be external, but as a person internalizes a goal and it becomes part of his value system, the motivation becomes more similar to intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

What is the importance of all this information and research? Does it matter whether motivation is external or internal, as long as the work gets done or the student passes the course?

Money does motivate but only for a short time and only as long as it serves as a measure of worth or of power or of victory. — James L. Hayes

When all goes well, you can argue that external motivators aren’t important. But in this fast-paced world in which people cope with change, jobs evolve, and more responsibility is placed on people, understanding people’s motivators can help to smooth the way.


An exploration of motivation theory is not complete unless we address de-motivation or disincentive. An understanding of disincentives is important for well-meaning bosses, teachers and parents who sometimes offer a reward that has the opposite of its intended effect.

For example, a teacher may try to bring a shy student out of his shell by asking him a direct question. When the quiet student answers correctly, the teacher overly praises the student to try to create positive incentive for the student to participate more in class. However, the student may become embarrassed, rather than confident, and, consequently become even more quiet in class. In effect, the teacher’s intention to create positive reinforcement turned out to be serious disincentive for the behavior she’d been hoping to cultivate.

Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing. — Harriet Braiker, author of Type E Woman

Other disincentives exist, of course. Some aspects of motivation theory identify fear and avoidance of failure as major motivators, albeit negative. People will go a long way to avoid public embarrassment, for example. Many people stop trying to be successful at things because they can’t bear to fail at one more thing. Our entire legal system is based on the threat of jail time as a disincentive to crime.

I’m slowly becoming a convert to the principle that you can’t motivate people to do things, you can only demotivate them. The primary job of the manager is not to empower but to remove obstacles. — Scott Adams, US author