Incorrect conclusions about self-motivated employees

25. March 2020

This article is more than one year old

Intrinsically motivated employees are not more prone to burnout than extrinsically motivated employees.

In his article, Christian Braathen concludes that employing intrinsically motivated employees is more risky than employing extrinsically motivated employees. His rhetoric builds on faulty assumptions and unwarranted links. Indeed, current research shows the opposite of some of his claims. There are three main flaws to Braathen’s argument.

First, he frames motivation as a personality trait and a dyadic concept, describing employees as either intrinsicly or extrinsicly motivated. Motivation is multi-dimensional, and is not a personality trait. As employees, we tend to experience both types of motivation to varying degrees, depending on the task, personal preferences and other environmental factors (Ryan & Deci, 2000). At work, we have some tasks that we enjoy, while we do others to avoid punishment or because we think it might yield a desired reward (for example a promotion, a salary increase, or a higher bonus). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are different types of motivation with different antecedents and outcomes (Ryan & Deci, 2000), and should be addressed separately (Kuvaas et al., 2017).

Second, Braathen states that intrinsically motivated employees are more likely to experience burnout when they lose their motivation. He bases his argument on the claim that it is more difficult for intrinsically motivated employees to regain motivation, compared with extrinsicly motivated ones. Braathen bases this argument on stress research conducted by Pavlov almost a century ago, and transfers the results directly to motivation. Current research on motivation and well-being offers little or no support for Braathen’s claims. In their research, Fernet, Guay, and Senécal, (2004) show that intrinsic motivation relates negatively to burnout and Kuvaas at al., (2017) find that extrinsic motivation relates positively to burnout. In sum evidence-based research on the relationship between motivation and burnout suggests that organizations should focus on enhancing intrinsic motivation, as it increases employees’ ability to cope with stressful situations and thus prevent burnout. Braathen’s suggestion to increase extrinsic motivation in order to prevent burnout would therefore most likely work against its intent.

Third, Braathen states that “…the [extrinsically motivated] can regain [their extrinsic motivation] within days or weeks if you only pay them a bit more.” This statement shows an overly simplistic view of the mechanics of remuneration on extrinsic motivation. Remuneration can refer to a wide range of rewards given to the employee, where pay is but one important component. When discussing the relationship between pay and motivation, it is important to distinguish between base pay and performance-based-pay (such as bonuses, sales commissions, promised merit pay increases). Base pay is not related to extrinsic motivation, but is positively related to intrinsic motivation; it provides the employee with a sense of being valued for their competence, and offers greater autonomy and is seen as a sign of appreciation of competence (Kuvaas et al., 2016). Performance-based pay is negatively associated with intrinsic motivation (Kuvaas et al.in press), but is, under certain conditions, associated with an extrinsic motivation and can increase performance. The conditions are whether employees perceive the distribution of performance-based pay to be contingent on their individual performance, whether they believe themselves competent enough to reach the objective, and whether they consider the increase in performance-based pay to be a relevant incentive to their job (Ryan & Deci, 2000).

In our discussions with business leaders, we often find that it is not the amount of promised performance-based pay that causes employees to lose motivation. Rather, loss of motivation occurs when employees perceive the distribution of performance-based pay as arbitrary, when the performance evaluation process is seen as non-transparent or unfair, or when they feel that there are external factors outside of their control that influence the outcome. A simple solution may sound appealing, however there is no quick fix like the suggestion of “just paying more”. For sustained intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, organizations need a detailed understanding of how their performance management and reward systems influence their employees. Without this understanding they run the risk of achieving the opposite to the intended and desired effect. This is an expensive way to run an organization.


Fernet, C., Guay, F., Senécal, C., & Austin, S. (2012). Predicting intraindividual changes in teacher burnout: The role of perceived school environment and motivational factors. Teaching and teacher education, 28(4), 514-525. 

Kuvaas, B., Buch, R., & Dysvik, A. (In Press). Individual variable pay for performance, controlling effects, and intrinsic motivation. Motivation and Emotion.

Kuvaas, B., Buch, R., Gagne, M., Dysvik, A., & Forest, J. (2016). Do you get what you pay for? Sales incentives and implications for motivation and changes in turnover intention and work effort. Motivation and Emotion, 40(5), 667-680.

Kuvaas, B., Buch, R., Weibel, A., Dysvik, A., & Nerstad, C. G. (2017). Do intrinsic and extrinsic motivation relate differently to employee outcomes?. Journal of Economic Psychology, 61, 244-258.

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