Most of the time, when we talk about motivation, we’re talking about one of two things: Either you’re working hard because of the benefits it can bring you, like money and clout (also known as extrinsic motivation), or you’re working hard because of some internal drive for success or sense of purpose (intrinsic motivation). The luckiest people might be the ones who have both types, with jobs that are fulfilling, satisfying, and compensating them well. The second-tier luckiest are the people who can rely on one or the other to get them through: Maybe they’re not making a ton, but they’re doing work they find meaningful; maybe they’re underwhelmed by the day-to-day demands of their role, but like the lifestyle it affords.
And then there are the people who have neither — the ones whose jobs are a toxic combination of low-paying and soul-suckingly boring, without the possibility of advancement or connection to a larger cause. How, in such a miserable professional situation, do you find the will to get up and go to work each day?
That question was the focus of a study published earlier this year in the Academy of Management Journal, and recently highlighted in Quartz by organizational psychologist Nick Tasler. The study authors followed a group of factory workers whose jobs consisted of the same mundane task day after day, without any rewards for good performance — a situation, Tasler noted, that seemed perfectly designed to squelch both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. But the researchers found that some people who lack both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are still spurred on by a third factor, one called “family motivation.” Tasler explained:
Workers who agreed more with statements like “I care about supporting my family” and “it is important for me to do good for my family” felt more energized and performed better day after day, even though they were offered no financial incentive and they did not find their work interesting, engaging, or enjoyable. It wasn’t only parents who experienced family motivation. It also applied to unmarried and childless workers who defined their family as brothers, sisters, parents, and other relatives.
The beauty of family motivation, he added, is that unlike the other two, it’s something you can carry with you to pretty much any professional situation — even the crappiest job “provides us with the opportunity to affirm our identities as capable, respectable individuals, upon whom the most important people in our lives can rely.” When you hate everything else about the workday, that can be more than enough.