A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about leadership—something of a first here at Adam Smith, Esq., at least calling it out explicitly by that name—and the topic deserves revisiting and elaboration. My article took off from an HBR piece, Why You Lead Determines How Well You Lead, but it in turn relied on research done by the author and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which provided a wealth of data.

To quickly review the bidding:

  • The study covered over 10,000 Army leaders from their entrance into West Point through graduation and about a decade into their careers—about 1 in 5 living graduates of West Point.
  • The strength of the dataset was premised on the Army’s standardized annual performance appraisals, comparing officers’ performance to the Army’s leadership framework and gauging the individual’s capacity to lead at a higher level.

When I went back to look at the published source material research, several findings jumped out at me. From the executive summary:

Although people often assume that multiple motives for doing something will be more powerful and effective than a single motive, research suggests that different types of motives for the same action sometimes compete. More specifically, research suggests that instrumental motives, which are extrinsic to the activities at hand, can weaken internal motives, which are intrinsic to the activities at hand. … [Our] results suggest that holding multiple motives [both intrinsic and extrinsic] damages persistence
and performance in educational and occupational contexts over long periods of time.

Viewed from the perspective of the leader of, or even a manager in, a law firm, the findings are both powerful and counter-intuitive, which the authors readily admit:

Logic would suggest that if you have one reason for doing something, having two or more reasons to do the same thing
would be even better, rendering motivation more tenacious, follow-through stronger, and outcomes better. Schools and workplaces are full of systems that attempt to tap people’s internal motives to act (e.g., because engaging in the activity is the
moral, interesting, or meaningful thing to do), while also providing rewards intended to spark instrumental motives to pursue
the same acts (e.g., grades, bonuses, promotions, and so forth).

Let’s back up: A word on terminology.

“Internal,” a/k/a “intrinsic” motivations are factors driving an individual that are internal to the activity itself. A gardener wants to grow a beautiful garden, a scientist wants to advance knowledge, a novelist wants to create an enduring work of literature, a lawyer wants to structure a brilliantly designed deal.

By contrast, “external,” a/k/a “instrumental” motivations are factors whose relation to the actual activity in question are largely arbitrary. The gardener would like to be featured in a magazine, the scientist covets an award, the novelist wants to make the best-seller list, the lawyer wants (you saw this coming, admit it) to be highly compensated.

Now, the nature of human society and economic and marketplace exchange is that all activities, pursued well, tend to produce both effects. Beautiful gardens are, in a fair world, more likely to make magazine features; great scientific discoveries deserve to earn awards; literary merit deserves commercial recognition; and legal brilliance should be well remunerated.

Mixed results are not what this is about; this is about mixed motives. And mixed motives turn out not to work so well.

Here’s the data:

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