Beyond paychecks and praise: Leaders must focus on multiple motivation styles

Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are critical for keeping team members involved and prepared for the challenges they face


Firefighting is not a job where you can just “phone it in.” All firefighters need to be motivated, not just to the daily demands of the job, but to jump into action when things get crazy and they must give their all, and more. Unlike other jobs where performance may affect return on investment or their “bottom line,” for firefighters, it can be a matter of life or death.           

Two kinds of motivation come into play when talking about performance in any context:

  1. Extrinsic motivation is due to external factors that reward, or in some cases punish, behaviors in order to achieve desired outcomes.
  2. Intrinsic motivation comes from factors within people to motivate them to take action or achieve.
In addition to external incentives and disincentives, people need internal factors to keep them focused and committed to growth in whatever position they may hold.
In addition to external incentives and disincentives, people need internal factors to keep them focused and committed to growth in whatever position they may hold. (Photo/Getty Images)

Especially in the workplace, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation must both exist. Very few people can remain motivated from internal factors alone when there is absolutely no external recognition or reward. Likewise, studies show that if extrinsic motivation is all that exists, people tend to need more and more of it to maintain the same levels of achievement.

Extrinsic motivation

The most basic kind of extrinsic motivation for work is a paycheck. Of course, not all firefighters get one. But all firefighters are affected by elements of extrinsic motivation. Positive extrinsic motivation includes things like training and certifications, letters of commendation, insurance and benefits, and the opportunity for promotion.

Extrinsic motivation is important. People need to know that their work is appreciated and valued. In the short term, extrinsic factors can motivate people to goals that they might not choose on their own. You see it in private industry all the time: the employee of the month, or the agent who gets a bonus for the most quarterly sales. For firefighters, extrinsic motivation might be as simple as a trip to Dairy Queen after completing a particularly unpleasant job around the station or as formal as a written commendation for extraordinary action on an emergency scene.

Extrinsic motivation is critical, but intrinsic motivation is ultimately what keeps people going in the long haul. In addition to external incentives and disincentives, people need internal factors to keep them focused and committed to growth in whatever position they may hold.

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is based on three elements: autonomy, competence and affiliation. The best leaders work hard to foster a work environment that includes all three for all members.

Autonomy is about identity and control. All people need to feel they have some individual control over their lives. Studies show that those who feel they have more autonomous control in their lives are more engaged in the workplace and suffer less burnout.

Some fire departments, especially in the past, have taken the attitude that new firefighters should have no autonomy and should never make a decision – they should strictly wait to follow orders from others. This is a mistake on several levels. First, even the newest firefighter may see or know something that no one else knows. Suppressing their ability to speak to this knowledge can have a negative effect on the entire incident. Second, all firefighters must be empowered to stand up when something inappropriate or dangerous is happening. And finally, if you cultivate firefighters who never have to think, what kind of officers will they be a few years down the line?

Competence is a key aspect of confidence. If you have skills and you feel confident and empowered to use those skills, you are more likely to step up to use that knowledge in a way that matters. On the other hand, those who feel insecure in their knowledge or skills are likely to hang back, feel bad about themselves and the job, and lack motivation to contribute.

Finally, affiliation is an important factor for intrinsic motivation. People need a sense of connection with others, especially those with whom they share goals. Firefighters depend on one another in ways other workers do not. Emergency response tends to reinforce that connection, but what about the majority of the time when firefighters are not responding to emergency calls? How much connection do members feel with one another during those times? Is everyone included or is there a strong social hierarchy in your organization that favors some and marginalizes others?

Leaders need to create opportunities for all members to increase intrinsic motivation. This means that all members are well trained and given opportunities to make decisions. It means that all members are equally valued as part of the team, even as they may be recognized for their individual strengths and competencies.

Focus on both

Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are critical for keeping team members involved and prepared for the challenges they face. The best fire service leaders understand their role in not only providing extrinsic motivators but also fostering an environment where intrinsic motivation can flourish.

Reference

Ryan, R.M., Deci, E.L. “Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness.” The Guilford Press, New York, 2017.

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