Maximising employee productivity has long been a major concern for organisational leaders.

In the early 1900s, Frederick Taylor introduced the theory of scientific management. It claimed that workers are primarily motivated by pay, and the main job of leaders is to set and enforce work standards.

His theory, though flawed in its oversimplification of motivational dynamics, set the standard for rigorous workplace study.

B.F. Skinner made an important advancement in the middle of the 20th century with his concept of behaviourism, in which rewards motivate good behaviour and punishment discourages bad behaviour.

Although recognising what would become the well-known Hierarchy of Needs put forth by Abraham Maslow in the 1960s, Skinner and his adherents maintained that motivation originates exclusively outside of the employee, thus necessitating tight control of employee behaviour from leaders.

Self-determination Theory

Over the last 40 years, Edward Deci, Richard Ryan, Daniel Pink and many others have shed new light on intrinsic motivation. Their work has led to and supports the Self-determination Theory (SDT).

Their research found that employees are intrinsically motivated to perform work-related tasks efficiently and effectively.

Thus, the task of leaders is to create conditions in the work environment that are conducive to optimal employee motivation.

The key to the SDT is recognising that there are two different types of motivation:

* Autonomous motivation: Doing a job because it is either intrinsically interesting or is consistent with the employee’s deep and abiding personal values.

* Controlled motivation: Doing a job because the employee feels pressured by external or internal forces to do it.

Studies have shown that the type of motivation that employees have is more important than the amount of motivation when predicting how they will perform and feel in the workplace.

Are rewards harmful?

No, extrinsic rewards do not always undermine intrinsic motivation and are, at times, appropriate.

However, great care should be given so that they are not used to motivate or control behaviour, thus achieving an unintentional negative effect.

This occurs because extrinsic rewards have a strong tendency to make employees dependent on the rewards.

And since research has shown that autonomous motivation is more likely than controlled motivation to promote flexible thinking, high-quality learning and problem-solving, employees are more effective and experience greater satisfaction at work when extrinsic rewards are minimised in favour of fostering employees’ intrinsic motivation.

Three basic psychological needs

Examination of the research shows that when three basic and universal psychological needs are supported, employee motivation and productivity rises.

When these needs are thwarted, healthy functioning plummets. This has broad implications for the workplace.

These three needs are:

* Competence: People’s experience of being effective and mastering their social and physical environment.

* Relatedness: People’s experience of close, meaningful and mutually supportive connections with important others.

* Autonomy: People’s sense that their behaviour is volitional, performed willingly, reflectively self-endorsed and experienced as chosen.

Considerable empirical research indicates that employees whose leaders provide support for competence, relatedness and autonomy experience higher levels of well-being, trust in the organisation, engagement and satisfaction at work, and performance in the workplace.

Internalising motivation

Providing support for satisfying basic psychological needs also facilitates the process of internalisation toward greater autonomous motivation.

This is associated with high-quality behavioural persistence and performance, as well as physical, psychological and social wellness in the workplace and other areas of life.

However, employees perform work-related tasks for a variety of reasons.

Some complete their daily tasks quite willingly and experience interest, excitement, enjoyment and satisfaction, while others feel pressured or forced to do those tasks.

How employees approach given tasks depends on many factors. Most importantly, leaders or managers cannot force their employees to internalise their motivation.

They can, however, contribute to their employees’ workplace success by providing an environment and facilitating certain behaviours that allow employees to satisfy their needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy, thus promoting optimal motivation and functioning at work.