Why your job is stealing your joy — and how to fix it

Changemakers — what happens when you take your passion from side hustle to day job? It seems like the dream — making your living doing something you love — but when your paycheck is linked to your purpose, something unexpected happens. Research suggests that when you do something for your own personal reasons, you perform better — and find it more fun — than if you do it for money. See, there are two sorts of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is internal — you’re doing a task because you want to. Extrinsic is external — you’re doing it because you’ll be rewarded for it.

Teresa Amabile, Harvard Business School professor, ran a series of experiments to test the effects of motivation on performance. Subjects who were promised rewards for their work performed worse on creative tasks than those who did the same tasks just for fun. Amabile’s findings suggest that work done out of pure interest will be superior to work done for financial gain.

In another study, creative writing students were split into three groups and asked to write poetry. The first group was given extrinsic reasons for writing — making money or getting into a good graduate school. The second group was given intrinsic reasons — the fun of writing, enjoying feelings of expression. The third group wasn’t given any reasons at all. A panel of judges rated the resulting poems, and the extrinsic motivation group had the lowest scores by far.

Finally, a study of sixth-grade tutors found that volunteer tutors communicated ideas quicker, were less likely to become frustrated and did a better job overall than tutors who were compensated for their work. The feeling of helping someone was better motivation than the extrinsic reward.

This doesn’t mean you should relegate your idea to a passion project. Instead, as your purpose becomes your career, try to stay focused on the intrinsic rewards. Why did you create or join your organization? What problem are you trying to solve? It’s easy to focus on quarterly reports and financial targets, but try to keep your focus on the larger purpose.

The same is true of your employees. Tap into their intrinsic motivators to get higher quality work — and more contented workers. Here’s how:

  • Create a sense of meaningfulness, a sense that workers can accomplish something of real value — something that matters in the larger scheme of things. Highlight the beneficiaries of their work, by allowing employees to meet the people they serve.
  • Celebrate progress. Employees are encouraged when they see the fruits of their efforts, when they feel they are truly accomplishing something. Provide frequent updates on work related tasks as reminders that your employees are making progress toward a larger goal.
  • Decouple rewards from performance. It might sound counterintuitive, but offering employees bonuses can suck the joy out of their work. Offering bonuses turns their hard work into a financial transaction and serves as a strong extrinsic motivator. Instead, celebrate their victories — send a congratulatory email to the whole office or take them out to dinner. If you think they deserve a financial reward, frame it as a raise rather than a bonus.

There’s nothing more fulfilling than marrying your career with your passion, but to maintain your sense of purpose, make sure that extrinsic motivations don’t crowd out intrinsic ones.

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