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The motivation trap: Enjoying an interesting task may reduce performance on other tasks

Datum:11 juni 2019
Auteur:Suqing Wu
The motivation trap: Enjoying an interesting task may reduce performance on other tasks
The motivation trap: Enjoying an interesting task may reduce performance on other tasks

It is widely supported by researchers that individuals’ intrinsic motivation is a vital driver of their work engagement and even job performance in the workplace. Intrinsic motivation is the act of doing something because someone feel it is inherently interesting and enjoyable rather than due to external forces such as monetary incentives or time pressure. When intrinsically motivated, people are willing to devote their attention, time, and efforts into tasks, which increases productivity and reduces mistakes during work.

Jobs are composed of multiple tasks. It would be ideal if people felt inherently motivated to perform all tasks with persistent efforts. However, it is unlikely that people allocate the same amount of resources and efforts in every task. In real life, the fact is that we do not love to do every task equally, instead we have some “favorites” over others. The question is whether intrinsic motivation has a cross-task effect on performance of multiple tasks. Interestingly, in a recently published scientific paper by Shin and Grant (2019), the authors found that intrinsic motivation in one task can reduce individuals’ performance on other tasks.

Through a survey study conducted in a Korean department store, the authors collected salespeople’s responses on their intrinsic motivation to do different tasks, such as selling, managing inventory, and arranging items for display. Data analysis showed that higher intrinsic motivation benefits the focal tasks but does not necessarily contribute the performance of other less intrinsically motivating tasks. More specifically, intrinsic motivation in one task exerted a curvilinear effect on performance in other tasks, such that “both low and high levels of intrinsic motivation in the focal task reduce performance in less interesting tasks”.

Why does this happen? These researchers found that relative boredom plays an important role here. “High intrinsic motivation in one task raises the standard to which other tasks are compared, creating a stark contrast in which less interesting tasks become boring in juxtaposition.” Working on intriguing tasks makes other tasks boring and less attractive, which can lead to decreased attention and more mistakes. However, the psychological underlying mechanism is not completely clear yet. More research has to be done to open the black box.

Despite the finding that high intrinsic motivation affected people’s performance on other tasks, the authors also found that if other tasks, by comparison, were also interesting, the downside of high intrinsic motivation was largely diminished. This suggests to organizations that encouraging employees to enjoy all their job tasks (instead of one or a few) is important. This can be achieved in different ways, such as building a high work engagement culture in the workplace, or designing job tasks to be composed of roughly equally interesting task to reduce boredom.

Suqing Wu (s.wu rug.nl) is a PhD candidate of Human Resource Management & Organizational Behavior at the Faculty of Economics and Business, University of Groningen, with expertise on team creativity and innovation, team membership change, and team creative processes.

Literature introduced:

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.