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  • Tamar Balkin

Is There More To Motivation Than Meets The Eye?

“You can do a lot when you've got such a happy working tune to hum

While you're sponging up the soapy scum

We adore each filthy choir that we determine

So friends, even though you're vermin we're a happy working throng”


Happy Working Song by Amy Adams (Click here for the song)

Photo by Sepp Rutz on Unsplash


“Will my involvement make a difference; will it matter if I raise my hand or contribute to this project; at the end of the day, will my contribution be valued, or appreciated?”

Shuck, B., & Rose K


What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement is defined as the cognitive, emotional, and behavioural energy an employee directs toward positive organisational outcomes. Organisations that develop high levels of engagement among their employees enjoy increased levels of performance that their competition simply does not. Researchers have found that true engagement lies at the intersection of outcomes and individual work experiences.


"The coupling of meaningfulness and engagement points to the core of what it means to be engaged: the opportunity to be enveloped with the people, situations, and opportunities that we believe deeply matter.”

Shuck, B., & Rose K


Researchers have found that employees give very little energy and attention to efforts they interpret as meaningless or in situations where they believe personal resources, like time and knowledge, are likely to be wasted.

Motivation at work: internal or external?

Regular readers would know there is a debate in the literature between the relative benefits of intrinsic and extrinsic theories of motivation.

"There has been increasing recognition that, when individuals are intrinsically motivated towards their work – engaging effort simply because the task is fun, exciting or interesting (Deci, 1975) – they perform better, are more likely to remain in their jobs, be more committed, and experience better wellbeing (Cerasoli et al., 2014; Greguras and Diefendorff, 2009; Van den Broeck et al., 2021). Unfortunately, the nature of working life means that work tasks are not always fun, exciting or interesting”

Rebecca Hewett


Regular readers would know that according to self-determination theory, individuals can still experience beneficial, self-determined, motivation, for tasks that seem uninteresting. This internal motivation comes when a person can personally identify with the importance or value of the task and feel they have the freedom to choose to be driven to put effort into it.


“When individuals are externally motivated, by reward or punishment, they have a sense that they have to perform a task or activity, but when they have internalized the motivation for the task, they feel that they want to perform the task” 

Rebecca Hewett


Some researchers have argued that the meaning people ascribe to our work is shaped by the rewards they receive from that work.

In an attempt to reflect the real world where there are internal and external motivators, researchers have found that it is possible to reconcile these two approaches to motivation. Whilst intrinsic motivation is desirable, researchers have found that  the internalisation of externally initiated tasks has the same beneficial implications for well-being and performance-related outcomes.

How do workers internalise their own motivation?

Researchers have found that the internalisation of motivation is characterised by stages of reflection and reframing. This process enables the achievement of goals, whether or not they were initially favourable, because the employee has successfully reframed their reason for engaging in the task. 

Reflection involves considering past, current, or future actions and experiences and ‘engaging in comparison, considering alternatives, seeing things from various perspectives, and drawing inferences’ (Jordan et al., 2009, p. 465).

The positive outcome of reflection is cognitive reframing the process by which individuals change their ascribed reason for engaging in a task.

There are three ways people engage in cognitive reframing at work:

Development opportunity:  Reframing a challenge as a development opportunity, leads to better adaptation to circumstances and a strengthening of efforts to further learn from the situation. 

Finding and enhancing opportunity: Reframing something that was seen as unimportant or a waste of time, to refocus on what value could be derived, improves adaptive behaviours and the further identification of more growth opportunities.  

Prosocial: Guilt is an emotional signal that a particular course of action is unacceptable and ought to be interrupted or avoided. Prosocial reframing involves comparing aspects of oneself against relevant standards and stimulating the desire to reduce discrepancies between self and ideals.  

Researchers have found that by thinking about the objective of their work in a new way, individuals can identify their work with a wider purpose. This higher-level motivation can provide an anchor to resolve the conflict with lower-level motivation through internalisation.   Employees spend time on opportunities that support, aid, and help themselves, those they care for, and the causes that they believe matter.  When they believe that their work will have a lasting impact they will persevere.


“Cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes.  Cognitive dissonance can be caused by feeling forced to do something, learning new information, or when faced with a decision between two similar choices.” 

Kendra Cherry 

In the work context reaffirming core values reduces dissonance and influences behaviour.


The concept of cognitive dissonance is nicely explained in this YouTube video by social psychologist Andy Luttrell.


Final thoughts:

Whilst individuals can resolve dissonance by making positive cognitive adaptations, researchers have found that this process can be facilitated and encouraged but not imposed. 



Barrick M. R., Mount M. K., Li N. (2013). The theory of purposeful work behavior: The role of personality, job characteristics, and experienced meaningfulness. Academy of Management Review, 38, 132-153.

Shuck, B., & Rose, K. (2013). Reframing Employee Engagement Within the Context of Meaning and Purpose: Implications for HRD. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 15(4), 341-355.

Hewett, R. (2022). Dissonance, reflection and reframing: Unpacking the black box of motivation internalization. Journal of Management Studies, 60(2). doi:

Baumeister, R. F., Stillwell, A. M. and Heatherton, T. F. (1995). ‘Personal narratives about guilt: role in action control and interpersonal relationships’. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 17, 173–98.

Draycott, S. and Dabbs, A. (1998). Cognitive dissonance 1: An overview of the literature and its integration into theory and practice in clinical psychology. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 37(3), pp.341–353. doi:

Cherry, K. (2022). What is cognitive dissonance? [online] Verywell Mind. Available at:


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