Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

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Self-determination theory. Part 3 Motivation comes in two different flavors: High quality and low quality.

by James Porter March 03, 2023

In this 4-part series of blogs, we are talking about Dr. Scott Rigby and self-determination theory. This theory looks at employee motivation, employee engagement, compensation, relatedness, autonomy and mastery. (Click here to see parts 1 and 2.)  To this series, we have added how all this relates to current research on stress, control and having a supportive supervisor. Today, we’ll talk about high-quality and low-quality motivation.

I’m truly fascinated by Dr. Rigby’s take on these different qualities of motivation. 

Dr. Scott Rigby, CEO of 
Dr. Scott Rigby, CEO of

Most organizations, he says, use reward and punishment as a motivator. Surprisingly, these are low-quality forms of motivation.  Low quality motivation works well in the short-term. He began by explaining punishments: “If we were to wire your chairs to deliver an electric shock that would instantly motivate you to stand up. But that’s not going to work long-term. After a while you’d simply get up and leave.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Rigby explains: “I can throw a hundred-dollar bill on the floor to motivate you as well. That will get you out of your chair, too.” That’s a reward, but studies show that monetary rewards don’t really motivate people as much as you would think. In the Journal article he wrote entitled, “Self-Determination Theory in Human Resource Development: New Developments and Practical Considerations,”  he specifically quotes a study done at an organization where workers were paid extra to show up on time. It worked at first but not long-term.

That’s why both reward and punishment are examples of motivation that are LOW quality. In the short run they can be VERY effective, which is why these forms of low-quality motivation continue to be used. As Rigby explains: “Corporations are under siege by competitive pressures and market forces to be focused on short term results. Deadlines get advanced by clients or VIPs, sending a ripple throughout an organization to accomplish tasks with unreasonable pressure.”

Yerkes-Dodson -Law

This discussion of low-quality motivation reminded me of a classic study in the stress literature, generally referred to as the stress and performance curve or the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Just about every supervisor knows that as you increase the stress - or demands - (the horizontal axis) on a worker their performance increases (vertical axis) as well. What most supervisors don’t know is that this strategy only works to a certain point. It always backfires, long term.

Good supervisors know how to keep employees on top of the upside-down U: Performing at their peak by giving them the right kind of challenges (and the appropriate level of demands) for their own personalities and skill sets. While some workers might thrive being out in front of a lot of people, giving presentations to big clients and doing public speaking at trade shows, for another worker that might be overwhelming. Roles, tasks and even workflow to some extent, need to be customized to each worker’s abilities and talents, in order for those workers to thrive in your organization.

But the traditional carrot and stick approach tends to ignore the downside of the Yerkes-Dodson law. Eventually just adding on more demands and more pressure pushes all types of workers over the top of the curve into burnout, breakdown and stress-related health problems. As Dr. Rigby explains: “The motivational truth is that long-term goals, strong cultures, and even financial performance are sacrificed when short term (low quality) tactics are used. Such tactics destroyed the Texas Oil Company Enron, which at one time the sixth largest company in America. And it nearly destroyed Wells-Fargo Bank, as well.”

One way to keep workers at the top of the upside U is to encourage MASTERY (or competence), the third piece in the Self Determination Theory puzzle (which we talked about in part 1). Workers that get adequate training, and support from their bosses feel more in control. They can balance easily right at the top of the curve.

This brings to mind the work of psychologist, Suzanne Kobasa, who first studied stress in workers at ATT. She created a model around handling stress that is often referred to as Stress Hardiness and the three C’s: Control, Challenge and Commitment. These three C’s fold neatly into Self-determination theory as well. When ATT was going through a period of downsizing, the workers who did best (thrived) felt like they had control over what they did, felt challenged by their work and were committed to their jobs. (In other words, they felt like what they did at work mattered.)

In essence, these employees at ATT were being driven by intrinsic motivation. Next week we will look at the difference between intrinsic motivation and extrinsic.

James Porter
James Porter