Merit pay bonuses autonomous motivationExamining the relationship between workplace rewards and the quality of motivational experience; a Self-Determination Theory perspective

Rebecca Hewett (2014)

Abstract: The relationship between reward and motivation is one of the most fundamental questions in organisational research. Self-determination theory (SDT) acknowledges that performance-contingent rewards are motivational but suggests that these highly contingent rewards undermine better quality (autonomous) motivation because they thwart the satisfaction of individuals’ basic psychological needs. Through three field- based empirical studies, these theoretical assumptions were tested. The first, a qualitative interview study, supported the distinction between different motivation types and found that more autonomous motivation related to a more positive emotional experience. The second and third studies addressed the primary aim of the thesis; to test SDT’s theory about the reward–motivation relationship.

The second study was a longitudinal survey across two years which incorporated objective reward data. This focused on the relationship between merit pay and bonus level, and work motivation. This study found that high bonuses did not undermine autonomous motivation but did predict increased external motivation. The implication of this is that external motivation, in turn, predicted poorer subjective wellbeing. SDT hypothesises that reward undermines autonomous motivation to the extent that rewards thwart satisfaction of individuals’ basic psychological needs. In fact, there was a positive indirect effect between high bonus and autonomous motivation through need satisfaction, therefore contradicting the theory.

The third study employed a daily diary method focusing on informal, everyday rewards. This tested the theory that the controlling nature of reward is explained by the extent to which it is perceived to be salient whilst performing the task. Reward salience did predict more controlled forms of motivation although, again, did not undermine autonomous motivation. This is the first time that this theory has been explicitly tested in the field and was particularly novel in that it focused on everyday task motivation. Contributions and implications are discussed.

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