Unraveling the relationships between intrinsic motivation, extrinsic rewards, and their link to creativity poses quite the challenge. But let’s first begin with what we do know.
There is a strong positive link between intrinsic motivation–the kind of motivation stemming from one’s own curiosity and the challenge of the task at hand–and creative outcomes. These outcomes could be in the form of new ideas or new ways of solving problems. This is because the degree of motivation determines the extent to which one will fully engage one’s skill set, energy, time, and expertise into the task or problem at hand (Amabile, 1997).
Many organizations today use rewards (such as money or recognition) to stimulate creativity in their employees (Burroughs et al., 2011). However, scholars argue about whether rewarding creativity actually helps to stimulate it, or if it rather undermines the behavior. According to the conventional view of psychologists and organizational scholars, extrinsic rewards “crowd out” the intrinsic parts in individuals’ motivation (Deci & Ryan, 1985; Frey & Jegen, 2001). This notion is behind why hospitals only offer very moderate rewards to their blood donors, and why voluntary work often is coupled with sparse monetary rewards. When people do something for money, they attribute their motivation to this fact, rather than to an inner value (benevolence, in the examples above).
However, other evidence point to the fact that creativity can be appropriately rewarded in organizations. It’s all about which kind of people the organization is trying to motivate and which kinds of jobs or tasks they work on. Baer, Oldham and Cummings (2003) showed that rewards could increase the creativity for employees that worked on rather simple, routine jobs. The authors argue that first of all, these jobs typically offer individuals little opportunity to exercise personal control at their work. By participating in an extrinsic reward program, individuals could thus enhance their feeling of personal control. Second, extrinsic reward systems suggest to employees working on routine jobs that their work is valued, and that they are given an opportunity to receive feedback.
Yet in line with the conventional line of thought, Baer and his colleagues (2003) found that individuals who were already very motivated in the first place were slightly negatively affected by extrinsic rewards. For these individuals, making them think about monetary rewards may cause them to lose interest in the task or problem at hand. Findings like these point to the fact that reward systems do not suit everybody and consequently, time and money may be wasted.
Another line of research indicates that it is important to reward a certain kind of creativity. If ideas of high quality and originality are rewarded, individuals are more likely to come up with high quality ideas in subsequent tasks. On the other hand, if any kind of ideas are rewarded (i.e. an “every idea is valuable” approach), individuals will not engage themselves fully in the generation of subsequent creative ideas, thus lowering the quality of their creativity (Eisenberger & Shanock, 2003).
It seems that the effect of rewarding creativity with money or recognition is more complex than what is generally held. Under the right circumstances, creativity can be stimulated using these kinds of extrinsic rewards. Yet on the other hand extrinsic rewards could lower the creativity of highly motivated employees working on challenging and complex tasks (e.g. in research and development or innovation settings).
Consequently, management should be cautious when planning reward systems tailored toward increasing organizational creativity. The reward system must be tailored to 1) the job at hand, especially the degree of job complexity, 2) the kind of people who work on those jobs, and 3) the kind of creativity that the organization is striving towards.
Amabile, T. M. (1997). Motivating creativity in organizations: On doing what you love and loving what you do. California Management Review, 40, 39-58.
Baer, M., Oldham, G. R., & Cummings, A. (2003). Rewarding creativity: When does it matter? The Leadership Quarterly, 14, 569-586.
Burroughs, J. E., Dahl, D. W., Moreau, C. P., Chattopadhyay, A., & Gorn, G. J. (2011). Facilitating and rewarding creativity during new product development. Journal of Marketing, 75, 53-67.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York: Plenum
Eisenberger, R., & Shanock, L. (2003). Rewards, intrinsic motivation and creativity: A case study of conceptual and methodological isolation. Creativity Research Journal, 15, 121-130.
Frey, B. S., & Jegen, R. (2001). Motivation crowding theory. Journal of Economic Surveys, 15, 589-611.
Leif Denti is pursuing his doctoral degree of Psychology at the University of Gothenburg, Department of Psychology. His main research venue is how project leaders stimulate creativity and innovation in their project teams (project name: Management for Sweden). Leif Denti is also involved in a research project at the School of Business, Economics and Law, University of Gothenburg, studying organizational factors that may influence problem solving in project teams. Leif Denti holds a licentiate degree in Psychology at the University of Gothenburg.