The Undermining Effect At Work: How Instrumental Motivation Can Harm Career Success in the Military

The Undermining Effect on MilitarySpeaking of motivational quality . . . a new study was just published by Amy Wrzesniewski, Barry Schwartz, and colleagues about motivational quality among West Point graduates and how it relates to their achievement over the course of their military career. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS, most recently in the news for publishing the Facebook emotional contagion study), followed over 11,000 West Point cadets from the classes of 1997-2006 as they began their college careers and embarked on their subsequent military service. The cadets were assessed on their motivational quality, with a focus on whether they had more intrinsic motivations for entering the military (e.g. “I want to join the Army to develop myself.”) or instrumental motivations (e.g. “Military service will set me up for a well-paying career.”). The results confirm the undermining effect–although I also argue that they may not take account of the special role military service can play in the course of a career.

Specifically, in this study, soldiers who had endorsed more instrumental motivation for joining the military than intrinsic were less successful. (Success was measured by whether a cadet became a commissioned officer, whether a cadet was considered for early promotion after commission, and whether cadets continued military service after the conclusion of the mandatory 5-year period.) This is not surprising, given that people’s intrinsic motivation for an activity typically wanes when extrinsic compensation is provided. What I did find surprising was that soldiers were also less successful if they simultaneously had both intrinsic and instrumental motivations for military service.

Part of why this surprised me is that instrumental motivations seem, to me, to be key to any professional job. Except for the very wealthy or those fortunate enough to have a living situation that supports them, financial compensation is a major reason why people work. Granted, research (by Amy Wrzesniewski, the current study’s lead author) has shown that people’s attitudes toward their jobs vary, with some folks considering their jobs as careers (more gratifying and personally satisfying than just a job) and as callings (truly fulfilling work). Theoretically, the more a person considers their work a calling as opposed to a job, the less motivated they should be by financial or other extrinsic rewards.

I wonder how much the specific military setting influenced the results of this study, as opposed to a non-military organization. There are some interesting factors at play here:

  • West Point is a prestigious institution with competitive admission standards. At the same time, students make the decision to attend while still teens–not fully equipped to understand the duration and significance of their commitment to the military by attending the academy. It seems to me that this setting, young people attracted by the prestige of the school at a time when the prevailing rhetoric focuses on preparing oneself for career success, might actually encourage a stronger focus on instrumental motivators than otherwise.
  • At the same time, military service for West Point cadets does have a clearly defined end point (five years post-graduation) for those who choose not to make their career in the military. Most jobs don’t offer people such a clean opportunity to change positions and organizations in good standing. Would we see the same sort of mobility in a job setting where people have to make more of a proactive effort to exit the organization?

The New York Times editorial on the study does try to reconcile the fact that we usually work jobs for money with the idea that intrinsic motivation leads to job success, by noting that perhaps the right strategy has to do with focusing people on their intrinsic motivators at work over the instrumental ones. Having no military experience myself, I can’t speak to whether the service provides this sort of focus. I do know that at my job, there’s a strong cultural emphasis on how our work benefits other people (as outlined in the Johnson & Johnson Credo); this is the dominant dialogue, to the point where annual compensation conversations feel a bit jarring. Perhaps that is a good thing for employee performance and retention.

This study has implications for how companies consider attracting talent. The types of rewards typically emphasized by companies, such as competitive pay, flexible vacation time and work schedules, and organizational prestige, may not be the right ones to spark long-term commitment to the work. Rather, companies may want to revisit classic theories of work motivation such as the Jobs Characteristics Model, which emphasize the importance of a person’s tasks having significance for their overall motivation. (The Jobs Characteristics Model is also consistent with self-determination theory in emphasizing the importance of personal growth and accomplishment for ongoing motivation.)

Finally, I do think the study makes an erroneous assumption that military service is the target or endpoint of the individual cadet’s motivation. Introjected regulation happens when a person is motivated to do something to achieve another, further away goal. It seems to me that military service lends itself very nicely to introjected regulation. Someone, for example, who aspires to be a politician would do well to perform military service in his or her early career. Likewise, military service may be consistent for many people with introjected regulation, doing something that is aligned with your personal values or identity. People with a strong sense of patriotism or service might be drawn to military service not as an ultimate career goal, but as an expression of personal values. I think it’s short-sighted to say people with these types of motivation are “less successful” if they do not remain in the military indefinitely; rather, they may have achieved their objectives within the military and are ready for the next adventure.