Don’t let your intrinsic motivation become a liability

An inner drive to excel is compatible with expecting a pay rise.

Credits Sylvain Mauroux

Chris T. from Riot Games shared a post on LinkedIn titled “Why most fail the final interview at Riot Games.”

The answer: Most candidates don’t have the “clear intrinsic motivation” Riot seeks.

The concept of intrinsic motivation was pioneered by Edward Deci and later integrated into his and Richard Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory. It describes a kind of motivation that comes from within ourselves. Intrinsically motivated people pursue goals for the value they place on them rather than on the external rewards they may get from achieving them. If you are reading this post, you’re likely intrinsically motivated to self-improve and work on your productivity practice.

When defining intrinsic motivation, Deci and colleagues also identified its opposite: extrinsic motivation. Where intrinsic motivation comes from within, extrinsic motivation comes from without, in the form of rewards to chase or punishments to avoid—the proverbial carrots and sticks.

If your motivation is primarily extrinsic, it might not be strong enough to help you through the challenge of doing tough things, like the long-haul journey of building a video game. So, we can understand why Riot would want people with intrinsic motivation.

However, the conversation about sources of motivation steps into a slippery slope when employers use it as an excuse to place unjust expectations on their people.

To see what I mean, consider the examples Chris chose for intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation:

Good intrinsic motivations:

  • Getting a degree to work in an interesting field
  • Staying at a company because you enjoy the work
  • Improving skills through better performance
  • Working late because you love what you do

Bad extrinsic motivations:

  • Degree for higher pay
  • Sticking around just for the pension
  • Better performance for a raise
  • Overtime pay

Granted, the items in the list are representative examples of the opposite types of motivation. But, and maybe it is the jaded cynic in me talking, it seems like all examples of extrinsic motivation imply that wanting more money is a bad thing.

I’m the first to say that there’s more in life than money, but my spider-sense tingles when reading a list like that. When a company frames working late as something you should be doing for the love of the work, not for overtime pay, creating a culture of unrewarded overwork becomes much easier. (I’m not implying that’s Chris motive. Just using the post as a starting point to discuss the topic.)

Emphasizing the love for the work itself over the paycheck fits within the broader context of tech companies adopting mission statements and promoting traits like passion or commitment to the cause in their employees. (Remember the infamous CEO praising one of his leaders for selling their family dog?) Those would be admirable cultural cornerstones if not for the fact that they seldom move past the rhetoric stage. Gimmicks to get people to work more without paying them accordingly.

The best companies establish a win-win environment for their people. They provide a space where intrinsically motivated individuals can come together, do their best work, and get paid fairly for it.

A job that aligns with your intrinsic motivation will help you find meaning and fulfillment. But there’s nothing wrong or less worthy in having a job that is “only a job,” or, as described in The super-star and the super-chilled, a means to an end to sustain a lifestyle in line with your values.

Life is multifaceted. There are many sources of meaning to tap into. You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket. Again, maybe I’m just a grumpy old-man-in-tech at this point, but I’ve seen so many people making their job their main source of meaning, only to end up redundant when the startup they worked for burnt through its runway.

Chris wraps his post by encouraging readers to find a company that aligns with their values. This way, they can put their intrinsic motivation to use and “unlock meaning, fulfillment, and impact.”

That’s all nice and true, and I’m sure Chris meant well. Still, I hope this post of mine can act as a safety corollary.

Intrinsic motivation is crucial for your fulfillment and personal development. It will make work feel like play. Discover your inner drive and nurture it. But don’t let your employer exploit it.