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Perspective: On Motivation

CREDIT: Frank Flack (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons

The pursuit of creativity in research work is a frequent obsession of scientific leaders and policymakers, particularly, it seems, when federal science budgets shrink. At such times, it becomes especially important to extract maximum transformative value from every research dollar.

"To perform at their creative peak," the authors write, "people need to know that every idea will be respected ... enough to merit thoughtful consideration." —Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer

According to two scholars who are focused on managing creative employees, the way to do that is the opposite of what you might think. Intense pressure to do more with less, especially in the face of uncertain career prospects, is likely to inhibit creativity, not enhance it.

In a 25 April post called "What Doesn't Motivate Creativity Can Kill It" on the Harvard Business Review (HBR) Blog Network, Teresa Amabile, the Edsel Bryant Ford Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School in Boston and Steven Kramer, a psychologist and independent researcher, provide a short primer on how to motivate creative performance in employees. A wife-and-husband team, Amabile and Kramer are the authors of The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work . Their particular research interest is managing "knowledge workers," that species of employee whose primary asset is knowledge and whose everyday work is aimed at solving problems that are not routine. Examples include software engineers, writers, attorneys, editors, and business school professors, but scientists may be the best examples of all: "Our comments are probably most relevant to people involved in discovery," Amabile writes in an e-mail to Science Careers.

In the blog post, Amabile and Kramer discuss the four basic tools in a manager's motivational toolkit: goals, evaluations, rewards, and pressure. They note that these tools can be misused, and when they are, they can choke off intrinsic motivation instead of inspiring it. And when it comes to creativity, intrinsic motivation is everything: In their research, Amabile and Kramer found that knowledge workers "were generally most creative when they experienced positive emotions, had positive perceptions of their organizations and coworkers, and felt strongly intrinsically motivated by the work itself," Amabile writes in her e-mail.

Courtesy of Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer
Teresa Amabile (left) and Steven Kramer

Here's what Amabile and Kramer have to say about the four motivational tools, along with some personal observations--from me--about the relevance of those observations to science and science careers:


According to Amabile and Kramer, strong intrinsic motivation is possible only when employees embrace the project's vision, which, ideally, is shared with a team or organization. Employees (and science trainees) need to understand the point of the work and why it matters. If goals are too broad or vague—or if they're not visible at all—creative performance suffers.

But understanding and sharing goals isn't sufficient; workers also need autonomy in pursuing those goals. "Intrinsic motivation and creativity wither when people are told exactly what to do and how to do it; they need the autonomy to apply their own specific skills and talents," the authors write in the blog post.

What are the implications for current and aspiring principal investigators (PIs)? The authors’ research suggests that rather than play the role of the grumpy, controlling boss, PIs should act like facilitators and passionate advocates of the work. They should reveal the lab's vision and communicate the work's importance while helping protégés solve the problems they encounter as they pursue those shared goals.


Again, it’s all in the approach. Wherever there is "strong evaluation pressure," the authors write, employees "are reluctant to contribute their ideas because they fear overly critical reactions."

But while harsh evaluation can kill intrinsic motivation, feedback is essential. Without it, workers can come to feel that their role in pursuing shared goals is unimportant. "To perform at their creative peak," the authors write, "people need to know that every idea will be respected ... enough to merit thoughtful consideration." To borrow from the title of a different blog post written by the same authors, managers should "check in" but they should not "check up."

"The best managers that we observed went a step further," the authors continue. "Rather than being overly critical when ideas didn't pan out, they accepted the failures as a necessary part of doing creative work and helped employees search for lessons and opportunities in those failures." This observation seems especially important in science, where failure is ubiquitous and often productive.


Extrinsic rewards can be insidious. When "people feel that material rewards are being dangled before them like carrots on a stick, they come to feel externally controlled—a primary damper of intrinsic motivation," the authors write in the HBR Blog Network post. "Our research suggests that creativity flourishes when employees know that rewards and recognition will follow from good, creative efforts—without being told constantly about exactly which rewards will follow from which actions." Work-related rewards, such as opportunities to pursue other, potentially exciting work, are especially effective as motivators.

To extend this idea to scientific research and training: While there are a few awards around, science offers blessedly few dangling extrinsic rewards. Indeed, the problem in science is that the right kind of reward is too rare. Scientists in training neither need nor want pay-for-performance; instead, what they need is confidence that a record of consistent attainment will be rewarded with career advancement—with new opportunities, additional resources, and increasing independence. In the current research and funding climate, only a fraction of scientists get the rewards they deserve.


A certain sort of work-related pressure can be good. "Having the positive pressure of an optimally challenging assignment—being given an important problem to solve that no one else has been able to crack—can supercharge intrinsic motivation and creativity," the authors write. "Feeling like you're on a mission to create something that's urgently needed can be a real high."

But, as Amabile writes in her e-mail, another kind of pressure—intense, career-related pressure, such as the fear of not advancing or losing your job—can quash intrinsic motivation. "We found that that type of performance pressure tends to undermine positive inner work life. Even if people are 'productive' under such pressure (seeming to get a lot of work done), they rarely do their most creative work under such circumstances—because their intrinsic motivation usually suffers."

In her e-mail, Amabile proposed some actions that could be taken to help young scientists thrive under intense career-related pressure—and they're likely to sound familiar to those who are knowledgeable about scientific career issues.

"At the macro (policy) level, I think it's important to offer a wider array of opportunities, than traditional academia, for scientists to do interesting and important work (industry and government)—and to help doctoral students become aware of and train for these outlets for their creative work," Amabile writes. It's fascinating that Amabile is recommending more knowledge of, and better access to, nontraditional science careers not as a way of escaping the intense competition for faculty posts, but as a means of enhancing research performance. The advice may seem familiar, but the rationale is new: To make research better, provide more routes out of it.

How can early-career scientists help themselves? "At the level of individuals trying to maintain their intrinsic motivation and creativity in the face of strong employment pressure—it's very tough," Amabile continues. "I have seen people manage it by always having at least one project they are passionate about, even if it's an after-hours, skunkworks kind of project to which they devote only a few hours per week. Ideally, such a project will be a collaborative one with at least one or two kindred spirits."

Jim Austin is the editor of Science Careers. He is @SciCareerEditor on Twitter.