Looking for a Promotion? Pure Motivations Produce the Best Results

A new study of West Point cadets finds those driven by purely internal motivations were the most likely to succeed.
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A new study of West Point cadets finds those driven by purely internal motivations were the most likely to succeed.
Class of 2012 cadets from the United States Military Academy at West Point toss their hats. (Photo: The U.S. Army/Flickr)

Class of 2012 cadets from the United States Military Academy at West Point toss their hats. (Photo: The U.S. Army/Flickr)

What motivates someone to do the best possible job, and ultimately enjoy a successful, satisfying career? Is it an internal pull—a sense that one’s work is significant and satisfying—or a desire for the perks that accompany success, such as money and status?

A large body of research points to the first answer. While acknowledging that, it’s easy to assume that adding a few extrinsic motives to your intrinsic ones will only strengthen your ambition and determination. But in fact, the opposite appears to be true.

That’s the conclusion of a newly released study that focused on the motivations of more than 10,000 West Point cadets, and then followed them for up to a decade after graduation from the military academy.

It found those who achieved common markers of career achievement, such as being selected for promotions, were those motivated by purely by such internal factors as love of the job and commitment to national service.

"Following their entry into the Army, officers who entered West Point with stronger (externally driven) motives were less likely to be considered for early promotion, and to stay in the military following their mandatory period of service—even if they also held internally based motives."

“In real life, people bring multiple motives to almost any course of action,” a research team led by Amy Wrzesniewksi of Yale University writes in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Our results demonstrate that instrumental motives can weaken the positive effects of internal motives in real-world contexts.”

Wrzesniewski and her colleagues analyzed data on members of the entering classes of West Point cadets. They specifically looked at the classes of 1997 through 2006, excluding 2003 because a different set of survey questions of incoming freshmen was used that year.

The new cadets were presented with a variety of reasons to attend the school, and asked to indicate the degree to which each was applicable. These included a mix of internal motivations (such as the desire to be an Army officer, or to improve their minds and bodies) and external ones (including money and prestige).

The researchers then followed the subsequent academic and professional careers of the cadets for four to 14 years.

The key result: “Following their entry into the Army, officers who entered West Point with stronger (externally driven) motives were less likely to be considered for early promotion, and to stay in the military following their mandatory period of service—even if they also held internally based motives.”

This confirms a 1994 theory that, under certain circumstances, external factors can “crowd out” one’s internal motivations. If a job doesn’t prove to be as glamorous or as lucrative as you had hoped, it can dampen that internal fire that was your original motivation.

The researchers see some practical implications in their findings for managers. “Small but regular reminders of organizational purpose can keep internal motives dominant,” they write. If an organization offers cash bonuses or stock options as external motivation, it should also highlight the “meaningful consequences” of working there, they add.

So Joseph Campbell’s famous exhortation to “follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open” remains good advice—so long as you’re not counting on finding bags of gold in that unlocked room. According to this research, that sort of anticipation may be enough to throw you off track.

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