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:

WEstPointStudyThis explicitly recognizes, in a vivid way that would take a waterfall of words to achieve (and still would fail in comparative impact) the effect of explicitly mixed motives, and how the admixture of intrinsic with extrinsic motives affects outcomes.

Let’s deconstruct what’s displayed here:

  • The vertical axis, running from 40% to 90% is the probability of earning a commission for the cadet in question—think of this as the brass ring or the name of the game.
  • The horizontal axis, running from -2.5 to +2.5 (ignore the units; they’re arbitrary) is the degree to which the cadet in question was motivated by extrinsic/instrumental factors: From very little to quite a bit.
  • Finally, the blue, red, and yellow lines in the plot area represent cadets at the 95th%-ile, the the median, and the 5th%-ile, from top to bottom, in internal/intrinsic motivation.

In other words, no matter how strong your internal motivation—95th percentile!—if your external motivation is also strong, your odds of getting the brass ring are not statistically different from someone with virtually zero internal motivation. Looked at another way, if your intrinsic motivation is at rock bottom—5th percentile!—so long as your external/instrumental motivation is also very low, you’ve got a 50/50 chance of prevailing.

For the statisticians in the crowd, the P-score of these results is <0.0006, which is shockingly strong and almost unheard-of. Generally speaking, a P-score (roughly speaking, the odds that the outcome doesn’t actually prove anything) below 0.01 or 0.05 is considered virtual proof. Typically in social science, results like these simply don’t happen. (And it doesn’t hurt the power of these results that n = 10,239.)

Here’s how the authors summarize it:

Our results demonstrate that instrumental motives can weaken the positive effects of internal motives in real-world contexts and that this effect can persist across educational and career transitions over periods spanning up to 14 y. Instrumental motives crowded out internal motives, harming cadets’ chances of graduating from West Point and becoming commissioned Army officers. Following their entry into the Army, officers who entered West Point with stronger instrumentally based motives were less likely
to be considered for early promotion and to stay in the military ollowing their mandatory period of service, even if they also
held internally based motives.

And in an exercise in modesty, they write that “the potential scope of this undermining effect [of extrinsic motivations] on performance is significant.”

What does this mean, then, to you as a leader or a manager?

The interaction between individuals and the organizations in which they’re embedded is continuous, cumulative, and powerful, but also, I would like to believe, comprehensible. Not to be oblique about, but organizations can encourage intrinsic motivations or discourage them; encourage extrinsic motivations or discourage them.

As the leader of an organization, what can you do wrong?

  • Ignore the purposes of the firm. What is this place all about? What are we building? Why should anyone who works here care? What’s the vision? Never mind: Let the place become about compensation, profits, and financial performance.
  • Communicate to people through the distribution of financial incentives, bonuses, and raises, rather than through rewards and recognition for mastery and impact on colleagues and clients.
  • Finally, keep a tight leash on everyone; look over their shoulders constantly and micro-manage since (it’s safe to assume) people can’t be trusted to do the right thing left to their own devices. Make sure opportunities to shape one’s daily activities are suppressed in order to maintain control.

I will leave it to the authors to sum up:

Previous research has shown that people who do the same work can view it as a job, a career, or a calling, and that people who view their work as a calling find more satisfaction and do better work than people [without that]. … Callings denote a focus on the fulfillment experienced from the work itself, often accompanied by a sense that the work contributes to others in a meaningful way. Finding ways to emphasize the internal and minimize the instrumental may lead to better and more satisfied students and soldiers.

You should be saying to yourself around about this point that you knew all this in your heart.


Time to act on it.

In your personal life and career and at your firm.


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