Why do extrinsic motivators tend to lose their motivating properties in the long-term?
I believe that the dilemma of extrinsic motivators losing their impact over the long-term has to be analyzed from both the affect of the motivator and the response of those being motivated. According to Reeve (2009), "Extrinsic motivation arises from environmental incentives and consequences." Motivators can become dull and irrelevant if they are not adjusted to reflect the current work culture and the needs of the workers being motivated. The other side of this equation is the response of those being motivated. When people no longer have the will or desire to strive for a high level of achievement then motivators, no matter how exemplary, will be ineffective in their use.
As two teams prepare for Super Bowl this weekend the players on those teams are responding to extrinsic motivators. These teams are striving to excel to the highest level in their profession so as to declare themselves the very best at what they do. The lure of glory and recognition are motivation enough for the whole team and individual players to give everything they have as they compete. The motivation of being able to declare yourself the very best at what you do does not last for ever. In time the luster may wear off that prize, the challenge to achieve the goal may be too hard to overcome, or having achieved the goal already it may not be as important to do it again.
This last scenario is where the response of the person being motivated comes into play. If the individual has worked to achieve a goal with little to no success over time they may lose the desire to keep trying. Incentive programs that are too easy to achieve will become commonplace and employees may not feel continuously challenge to reach for a higher level. The opposite may occur in that if the incentive goals are set too high their may develop a frustration with always trying to achieve a level of success that is unattainable. People, while motivated by the challenge of success, can become frustrated when they feel they are not being given a fair chance at success or become bored with consistent success.
Extrinsic motivators need to be tailored to the workers being motivated so as to elicit the best possible response. Developing an incentive system that is varied will encourage consistent effort from employees who are enticed to earn the rewards.