Perhaps the book I most mulled over this year is Primed to Perform, a business book by Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor. It framed for me the value of intrinsic motivation in a way that finally tipped me over into full-on advocacy, along with Drive by Dan Pink and the various screeds of Alfie Kohn.

student motivation

The book argues that there are six major categories of motivation in doing any activity, on a spectrum of how connected they are to the activity itself:

  1. Play: The activity itself is motivating and meaningful
  2. Purpose: The consequences of the activity is motivating; the work is seen as positively impactful
  3. Potential: The benefits one will derive from doing the activity is motivating; the work is seen as directly connected to one’s personal goals
  4. Emotional Pressure: The activity is linked to temporary emotional health or social worth; the work is seen to have a bearing on one’s self-perception or judgment from others
  5. Economic Pressure: The activity is connected to material incentives or disincentives
  6. Inertia: The activity is done simply out of habit

Research has fairly robustly shown that the further you get away from intrinsic motivation, the more problematic that motivation becomes. Dan Pink outlines what may often come with using extrinsic motivations:

  • They can extinguish intrinsic motivation
  • They can diminish performance
  • They can crush creativity
  • They can crowd out good behavior
  • They can encourage cheating, shortcuts, and unethical behavior
  • They can become addictive
  • They can foster short-term thinking

Doshi and McGregor goes further to lump the first three motivational categories — play, purpose, and potential — into a bucket they call “Direct Motivations” and the last three — emotional and economic pressures and inertia — into a separate bucket they call “Indirect Motivations.” They then argue that Direct Motivations increase performance over time while Indirect Motivations corrode performance over time.

Dangling the Carrot

They then argue that performance actually takes two forms: tactical and adaptive. Tactical performance involves efficiently and effectively carrying out the plan to meet an objective. It tends to draw the most attention because it’s easily measured and evaluated. Tactical performance involves getting good grades, meeting sales targets, maximizing profits, increasing attendance, and so on.

Adaptive performance refers to the ability to deftly deal with ambiguous, complex, unexpected situations. While tactical performance focuses on engendering and mastering specific skills and strategies, adaptive performance requires creativity, critical thinking, and ethical confidence. It requires a person to think on his feet and take ownership of his actions in a way that merely implementing tactics never does.


You can see that while it’s possible to easily boost tactical performance with indirect motivations, those same motivations will likely poison any adaptive performance, which can only be sustained by a sense of autonomy, mastery, and connectedness.

Doshi and McGregor claim, moreover, that while tactical performance can be assured by strategy, adaptive performance is a product of culture, and they spend a good deal of their book detailing what kind of organizational culture promotes what they deem Total Motivation (basically Direct Motivation minus Indirect Motivation).

Daniel Pink does mention that one area where indirect motivations might still be useful are in routine, mindless tasks that are simply necessary evils. These may be “gamified,” provided that they are not core responsibilities, and it is transparent what is going on.


It’s worth considering long and hard which motivations are at play top-to-bottom in whatever enterprises you may be involved with, including the parenting and educating of your kids. I used to be pretty comfortable mixing up and utilizing different kinds of motivations as I intuited it. I’m now rethinking this.


2 thoughts on “Motivation

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