Ethics As Freedom, Part I: Behavioral Science’s Surprising Insights About Motivation Every Ethics Manager Should Know – ForbesNovember 1, 2019
“The enemies of the discipline of rules are the enemies of freedom.” – Friedrich A. von Hayek
“For what is ethics, if not the practice of freedom, the conscious practice of freedom?” – Michel Foucault
The previous post in my Ethics 2.0 column presented the scientific case that people have a capacity for ethical behavior. Under suitable circumstances people are quite capable and willing to conform responsibly with social norms and participate in upholding such norms.
The critical question that then arises is this: How can companies more fully harness the latent stock of moral agency embedded in their organization? How can organizations create an environment where employees actualize their ethical potential?
Behavioral science, specifically motivational science, offers valuable answers to this question. It shows that coercive tactics to impose compliance can diminish people’s motivation to act ethically. Motivational science reveals three ingredients of an organizational environment in which people’s motivation for ethical behavior can flourish. Supporting people’s freedom, it turns out, is one of them.
This two-part article will first summarize Self-Determination Theory, which is widely recognized as the leading theory in human motivation. Part two will then discuss how organizations can use these insights to design more effective ethics programs.
Controlled Vs. Autonomous Motivation
Self-Determination Theory distinguishes two types of motivation: autonomous and controlled motivation. Autonomous motivation is defined as engaging in self-determined behavior. When we are autonomously motivated, we engage in an activity either out of interest and enjoyment (intrinsic motivation), or because we deem the behavior personally important. In either case, autonomous motivation implies that behavior is freely chosen and self-endorsed as being consistent with one’s personal interests, values and goals.
When, by contrast, motivation is controlled people act for external reasons, such as to gain rewards or approval from others, or to avoid punishment. Controlled behavior is accompanied by feelings of obligation or pressure.
Understanding this distinction is vital for developing effective ethics programs. The difference between autonomous and controlled motivation goes to the essence of what distinguishes compliance from ethical behavior. Since Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, ethical behavior has been understood as doing what is right for its own sake. If done to receive gain or avoid punishment, the act is not ethical. To put it in the language of motivational psychology, ethical behavior has an internal locus of causality. By contrast, compliance, as per the dictionary definition, refers to the act of yielding to requirements by others. It has an external locus of causality.
Self-Motivation Drives Performance
Self-Determination Theory, originally developed by psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, proposes that people reach higher levels of behavioral functioning and performance when motivation is autonomous as opposed to controlled. Acting with autonomy allows people to engage behaviors wholeheartedly, to experience themselves as causal agents of their own life, and to maintain congruence between their authentic interests, values and actions. Individuals who are autonomously motivated are more likely to initiate and persist with an activity, to be deeply engaged and invest their wholehearted efforts and creativity. Autonomous motivation is also associated with greater satisfaction, healthy development and self-regulation.
Behavior based on controlled motivation, by contrast, is only likely to be initiated and to persist as long as an external reinforcement is in play. When people feel that no one is watching, or the incentive is withdrawn, interest in the activity is lost. Individuals who are control-motivated are less likely to be effective in self-regulating their behavior. Controlled motivation has been associated also with higher burnout and turnover.
Three Basic Needs
The environment in which we operate has a strong influence on our motivation. Self-Determination Theory proposes that people are more autonomously motivated when the environment satisfies their basic psychological needs. Deci’s and Ryan’s research has isolated three specific psychological needs that the social environment has to nourish in order to promote autonomous motivation: these needs are the needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
- Autonomy relates to a person’s desire to self-regulate one’s experience and actions. People prefer to act out of a sense of volition and choice, rather than feeling pressured or obligated.
- Competence connotes our need to feel able to operate effectively within our environment and to experience mastery in producing the outcomes we desire. The need for competence manifests itself in our curiosity to investigate and understand matters of concern in our lives and to master the necessary skills for dealing with them.
- Relatedness refers to the desire of interacting with and feeling socially connected to others. People experience a sense of belonging when they feel integrated into a community where they are valued and cared for, and where they can derive a sense of significance from caring for and contributing to their fellow community members.
A large and growing body of empirical research confirms that people’s autonomous motivation and work performance is strongest within an environment that nourishes their basic psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This link between needs satisfaction, motivation and performance has been demonstrated across diverse life domains, including academic achievement, creativity at work, dealing with work stress, work safety behaviors, environmental behaviors, adherence to physical exercise, or smoking cessation.
The Hidden Cost Of Control: The Motivational Crowding-Out Effect
Deci and Ryan were also interested to test how incentives affect autonomous motivation. Incentives provide an external reason for doing something. As such, they are a tool to produce controlled motivation. But how do incentives affect autonomous motivation? Can we increase total motivation by combining controlled and autonomous motivation? Or does one substitute for the other?
The empirical evidence comes out in favor of a substitutive relationship. Autonomous and controlled motivations are not additive phenomena. Deci’s and Ryan’s research provides evidence that standard motivational approaches, relying on control and extrinsic incentives (e.g., pay-for-performance), significantly decreases autonomous motivation for the incented behavior. This effect, often referred to as the motivational crowding-out effect, has been demonstrated for both rewards and punishments.
The Child Care Study: How Punishment Creates Deviance
One of many studies illustrating the crowding-out effect is the so-called Child Care Study. The study was conducted in a group of day-care centers, where parents used to arrive late to pick up their children, forcing a teacher to stay after closing time. In the experiment, an incentive in the form of a monetary fine was imposed on late-coming parents.
Somehow, and ad odds with the standard economic theory of human behavior, the fine produced a perverse effect: Instead of going down, the frequency of late-coming parents increased significantly. Making matters worse, canceling the fine did not return the frequency of late-coming parents to the lower previous level. Instead, the frequency remained high. This stickiness indicates that motivational crowding-out cannot be reversed at will simply by canceling an incentive.
Turning Motivation Inside Out
What gives? Different theories have been proposed to explain the crowding-out effect. According to Self-Determination Theory, incentives are perceived as controlling feedback. They reduce the perception that one’s behavior is self-determined. People shift from an internal locus of causality to an external locus of causality. They ascribe their motivation predominantly to external constraints, leaving them to feel like a marionette whose strings are being pulled.
When people’s need for autonomy is chronically thwarted, they may engage in compensatory behaviors. They may reduce the control they exercise over their own behavior, develop rigid behavior patterns, or engage in behavior that is opposite to what is requested of them. This behavior, referred to as oppositional defiance or reactance, represents an effort by the person who feels controlled to reestablish a modicum of perceived autonomy.
Another explanation argues that extrinsic incentives send signals that lead recipients to reevaluate the incented behavior. When a company offers to employees an incentive for performing a behavior, this may signal to employees that the company does not trust them to perform this activity without the incentive. The incentive may also signal that the behavior in question is inherently not enjoyable.
Yet another explanation suggests that incentives can convert social norms into tradable commodities. Before the fine, parents viewed arriving late as wrong in and of itself. Parents were thinking about the norm in social terms. They were concerned how coming late would affect their relationship with caregivers at the daycare center. After the fine was introduced, however, parents felt comfortable being late as long as they paid the price for it. Sticking a price tack on late-coming transformed its meaning. Now, the parents thought about it in purely transactional terms. The fine was a guiltfree way to buy extra time.
Incentives Work Best For Dull Work
The crowding-out effect is more pronounced under certain conditions. It is stronger for so-called heuristic as opposed to algorithmic work. Heuristic work involves complex task, requiring creative problem solving and collaboration. People are more likely to experience this type of work as interesting for its own sake and to be intrinsically motivated to perform it. Due to its complexity, this type of work is more difficult to control and therefore calls for more personal initiative.
Incentives can increase performance, however, for work that people find genuinely uninteresting and unmotivating to begin with. This tends to be the case for so-called algorithmic work, which involves simple, repetitive, monotonous tasks.
Beware The Quid Pro Quo
Further, the effect of rewards on motivation depends on when and the degree to which they are made salient. Rewards diminish autonomous motivation for an activity when they are made contingent. A reward is contingent if its distribution is conditioned on the prior performance of the requested behavior. This is the case for example for piece-rate pay. The receiver of the reward understands that one must first perform the activity to earn the reward.
Non-contingent rewards, by contrast, do not undermine intrinsic motivation. Examples for non-contingent rewards include those that are given to people simply for showing up for work (i.e. fixed, basic pay), or rewards that are received unexpectedly after task completion as recognition of a job well done.
It has also been shown that monetary rewards reduced autonomous motivation more than symbolic ones. Indeed, positive feedback, which can be interpreted as a form of symbolic reward, has been found to enhance intrinsic motivation, whereas negative feedback diminishes it.
Application To Ethics Management
How then can organizations create an environment that supports optimal ethical motivation and performance? Self-Determination Theory suggests the following answer: People’s autonomous motivation to act ethically is high when doing so contributes towards the fulfillment of their fundamental psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Part two of this article (click here) will provide concrete examples of how ethics practitioners can apply this insight to design more engaging and effective programs.
Great literature is available to those who want to learn more about the science of motivation. As a great introduction, I recommend Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation by Edward Deci and Richard Flaste. For those who caught the bug and want to dive deeper, Self-Determination Theory. Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness, written by the founders of the theory, is the all-encompassing reference text. If you are looking for an application of the theory to a variety of workplace-related topics, then The Oxford Handbook of Work Engagement, Motivation, and Self-Determination Theory, edited by Marylène Gagné, is your best choice. Lastly, a vast number of peer-reviewed articles is available for free at the official website of Self-Determination Theory.
What Are Your Thoughts?
Under what circumstances do you feel most energized? What kind of work environment allows you to do your best work? – I would love to hear your thoughts. Please join the conversation by commenting, liking, or sharing. You can find my related LinkedIn post here and my Twitter post here.
This post is part of the Ethics 2.0 column, a series on self-governance in organizations. You might also enjoy these posts: