Published on August 4, 2021

What Is Competence Motivation And How To Use It

What Is Competence Motivation And How To Use It

You must have come across “Employee of the Month” boards in stores and workplaces that feature the best employee in a specific period. Indeed, it is a form of appreciation for the employee’s hard work. But can’t preference be given privately instead? So, why announce it to even the customers? That’s right—to motivate the other employees to work harder by triggering their competitive side.

In my previous article focusing on intrinsic and extrinsic motivations, I covered two sources of motivation that drive an individual towards productivity. This article extends the prior write-up, providing a new perspective on motivation and utilizing competence motivation to reap maximum benefits.

Why You Don’t Always Need Incentives

You don’t always need incentives to realize what is truly needed. Susan Fowler, in her book “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does: The New Science of Leading, Energizing, and Engaging,” writes,

“Outdated terminology—such as driving for results or incentivizing behavior—leads you down the wrong path if you are looking for motivation that generates productivity without compromising positive and enduring energy, vitality, and well-being.”

Productivity attached with incentives is a short-term motivating stimulus. In such a way, the mind is trained to seek incentives in any activity, the absence of which could severely impact the quality of performance.

The Idea Behind Motivation Is Empowerment

We need an inexhaustible power source within us that drives us to get out of bed every day and get things done. That empowering force comes from within—urging us to look beyond paychecks, cheat days, bonuses, and other incentives that distract us from the goal. Interestingly enough, that power source is also the insatiable kind, so you become unstoppable.


In 1959, Robert W. White published an article entitled, “Motivation Reconsidered: The Concept of Competence,” where he proposed “effectance motivation.”[1] The idea behind the concept stems from the innate instinct to strive for improvement and growth. White claimed that competence does not exist to fulfill a biological need. Instead, it helps an organism improve itself. And that is precisely our experience with competition—we see it as an opportunity to strengthen our ability through practice and experience.

Motivate Your Competence

When your competence is motivated, you are never aimless—you always have a goal.

Unlike thirst and hunger, the desire to compete and excel does not go away after a single objective is met. Instead, we find new goals, and our competitive side sets in, urging us to obtain them. Thus, depending on the degree of our desire to excel, there are two kinds of competencies:

  • Enhancing existing skills: Our existing skills, if honed continuously, can equip us with mastery and competence.
  • Mastering new skills: The desire to work hard and explore better opportunities drives us to learn new skills.

While the first kind of competence makes us feel good about ourselves, it’s only mastering new skills that can help us advance towards success. By letting our competence motivation take the lead, we enhance productivity, improve performance, become more energetic, and have increased chances of attaining satisfaction.

Lao Zou says, “He who masters others is wise. He who masters himself is enlightened.”

When we master ourselves, we become liberated from illusory beliefs and ideas that are imposed upon us. These beliefs are called domestication, a system of behavior control based on reward and punishment, which—according to Author Don Miguel Ruiz—is the biggest obstacle to personal freedom for human beings. Domestication is essentially the belief system and incentives of others telling you what you should do and how you live your life. Thus, it is living your life according to the system instead of what you think is important.


When we live a life of mastery instead of living on others’ terms, we pursue what we want. So, it’s no longer about incentives, but it’s all about becoming a better version of yourself and having such a strong belief in what you are focused on that you can’t help but spread the word to others!

The Psychology Behind Competence Motivation

A psychological take on competence motivation reveals plenty about how our mind functions and the choices we make. With a deeper understanding of our psyche, we can better equip our competence and motivation to use.

Curiosity didn’t kill the cat. Curiosity is one of the most driving competence motivators as it pushes people to explore, discover, and learn. You could either be:

  • Exploring generally without a specific goal in mind;
  • Or conducting focused research with a particular goal in mind or to fill a “knowledge gap.”

No matter your intention, you’re bound to find something interesting to help you move closer to your goal.

Putting the Pieces Together

The famous Greek expression “Eureka!” speaks volumes about the joy humans seek from discovery and invention. We find pleasure in solving math equations, reaching the climax of novels and movies, coming up with a ground-breaking business idea, learning a new skill, and the list goes on.

We love unwinding complexities and acquiring new knowledge. The joy that settles in after completing such a pleasurable activity can inspire us to improve ourselves personally and professionally.


We Love a Good Challenge

On the path to self-discovery and improvement, we get to decide the difficulty level of the tasks we will take up, just like in a video game. These three levels challenge our competencies, and we decide accordingly.

  • Easy: We all love easy things because they don’t require a lot of effort, but after a while, it gets boring and monotonous.
  • Moderate: Also known as the optimum level of complexity in psychology, these activities are neither too difficult nor too easy. We are generally inclined towards this difficult level.
  • Challenging: A challenging but conquerable task looks good once in a while, but it can be a huge turn-off when faced repetitively.

Depending on our taste, we are motivated to take up tasks in life that help us evolve into better beings. And if you like things easy, then you might just be stuck at level one forever!

The Sentimental Value of Our Goals and Dreams

The sentimental value of a dream keeps us focused in life. We all want to do different things in life, and each goal holds a lot of meaning for us.

However, chasing dreams isn’t entirely about fulfilling one’s desires and meeting needs. Somewhere, a part of us wants the world to reflect the change we have witnessed in ourselves after achieving something. This realization comes with the cognizance of what’s at stake in making certain decisions and choosing or abandoning a different course of life.

Dreams can become real when you are focused on building on your competency.

Many of us believe that the great turning points and opportunities in our lives happen by chance—that they’re out of our control. But Dr. Christian Busch, author of “The Serendipity Mindset: The Art and Science of Creating Good Luck,” spent a decade exploring how, if acted upon, unexpected encounters can expand our random social encounters can enhance our worldview, expand our social circles, and create new professional opportunities.


Serendipity is usually about connecting dots that have previously remained elusive. Busch’s findings suggest that Good luck isn’t just chance—it can be learned and leveraged. When you are perceptive, curious, open-minded, and eager to see opportunities, others might see only negatively. If you notice something unusual but can connect that bit of information with something else, you are in the right mindset for achieving serendipity.

The first step is to dream. Imagine the possibilities of creating something deeply personal and fulfilling. But, of course, a dream is just that if you don’t take steps to make it a reality. This leads us to the belief stage.

Next, to believe is to define and document your dream—what it is and isn’t and how it works to meet your personal needs. But it also needs to work for other people.

Finally, aligning your dream and belief connects your dream and reality with others. If you set realistic and unrealistic goals, embrace uncertainty, and stay positive, you will be setting yourself up to achieve.

Dream + Believe + Align = Achieve

Final Thoughts

Only you can choose the goals you set. Motivation is critical in meeting your goals. But choosing goals is not enough—you need to select the right goals and define a plan that keeps you accountable for meeting your goals.


All of the above accounts for competence motivation because we give meaning to life through our little and significant actions. Competence motivation is about finding a purpose in life and sticking to it. It’s the vision for a better future for ourselves and the world around us that keeps us motivated.

More Tips for Boosting Your Motivation

Featured photo credit: Victoire Joncheray via


More by this author

Jay Mandel

Jay is an Entrepreneur and the Founder of Your Brand Coach

What Is Competence Motivation And How To Use It What to Do If You Find Yourself Making Slow Progress Towards Your Goal Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation: Is One Better Than The Other? 3 Important Metrics to Gauge and Measure Attainable Goals How To Write A Personal Mission Statement (A Step-By-Step Guide)

Trending in Staying Motivated

1 What Is Incentive Motivation And Does It Work? 2 6 Friday Motivation Tips to Help You Stay Motivated 3 How to Improve Employee Motivation in the Workplace 4 20 All-Time Best Motivational Books to Inspire You 5 21 Powerful Words That Will Give You Life Motivation

Read Next


Published on September 27, 2021

What Is Incentive Motivation And Does It Work?

What Is Incentive Motivation And Does It Work?

We’ve all needed a bit of inspiration at some time in our lives. In the past year or two, that need most likely has grown. Who hasn’t been trying to shed those extra pounds we put on during the pandemic? Who hasn’t felt the need to fake a little enthusiasm at joining yet another Zoom call? Who hasn’t been trying to get excited about trekking back into the office for a 9 to 5 (longer if you add in the commute)? Feeling “meh” is a sign of our times. So, too, is incentive motivation, a way to get back our spark, our drive, and our pursuit of the things we say we want most.

In this article, I’ll talk about what incentive motivation is and how it works.

What Is Incentive Motivation?

Incentive motivation is an area of study in psychology focused on human motivation. What is it that gets us to go from couch potato to running a marathon? What spurs us to get the Covid vaccine—or to forgo it? What is it that influences us to think or act in a certain way? Incentive motivation is concerned with the way goals influence behavior.[1] By all accounts, it works if the incentive being used holds significance for the person.

The Roots of Incentive Motivation

Incentive motivation’s roots can be traced back to when we were children. I’m sure many of us have similar memories of being told to “eat all our veggies” so that we would “grow up to be big and strong,” and if we did eat those veggies, we would be rewarded with a weekend trip to a carnival or amusement park or playground of choice. The incentive of that outing was something we wanted enough to have it influence our behavior.


Growing up, incentive motivation continues to play a major role in what we choose to do. For example, while we may not have relished the idea of spending years studying, getting good grades, pursuing advanced degrees, and graduating with sizeable debt from student loans, a great many of us decided to do just that. Why? Because the end goal of a career, a coveted title, and the associated incentives of financial reward and joy in doing something we love were powerful motivators.

One researcher who believes in the power of incentive motivation is weight management expert, co-author of the book State of Slim, and co-founder of the transformational weight loss program of the same name, Dr. Holly Wyatt. Her work with her clients has proven time and again that when motivation fizzles, incentives can reignite those motivational fires.

“Eat more veggies, exercise, keep track of my weight: These things and more DO work, but bottom line, you gotta keep doing them. Setting up rituals and routines to put your efforts on auto-pilot is one way. And along the way, the use of both external and internal motivators helps keep people on track. External motivation sources are those things outside of ourselves that help to motivate us. They’re powerful, like pouring gasoline on a fire. But they may not last very long. Internal motivators are more tied into the reasons WHY we want to reach our goals. In my State of Slim weight loss program, we spend a lot of time on what I call ‘peeling back the onion’ to find the WHY. I think the internal motivators are more powerful, especially for the long-term, but they may take longer to build. They’re the hot coals that keep our motivational fires burning.”

Examples of Incentive Motivation

In the way of incentive motivation, specific to the external motivators, Dr. Wyatt challenges her clients to commit to changing just one behavior that will help them reach their weight loss goals. Clients must then agree to a “carrot” or a “stick” as either their reward for accomplishing what they say they will do or as their punishment for falling short. Those incentives might be something like enjoying a spa day if they do the thing they said they would do or sweating it out while running up and down the stairwell of their apartment building a certain number of times as punishment for not following through.


Whatever they choose, the goal must be something they really want, and the incentive must be something that matters to them enough to influence their behaviors in reaching those goals. Some people are more motivated by some sort of meaningful reward (a carrot) whereas, other people are more motivated by some sort of negative consequence or the taking away of a privilege (the stick).

Another example of incentive motivation is playing out currently with companies and government entities offering perks to people who get the Covid vaccine. Nationwide, offers are being made in the way of lottery tickets, cash prizes, concert seats, free admission to events and discounts for food, and even free drink at local restaurants and bars. The list of incentives being offered to the public to increase vaccination rates is pretty extensive and quite creative.[2]  These incentives are financial, social, and even hit on moral sensibilities. But is this particular incentive motivation working?

Remember that a key to incentive motivation working is if the individual puts importance on the reward being received on the ultimate goal. So, not all incentives will motivate people in the same way. According to Stephen L. Franzoi, “The value of an incentive can change over time and in different situations.”[3]

How Does Incentive Motivation Differ from Other Types of Motivators?

Incentive motivation is just one type of motivating force that relies on external factors. While rewards are powerful tools in influencing behaviors, a few other options may be more aligned with who you are and what gets you moving toward your goals.


Fear Motivation

In many ways, being motivated by fear is the very opposite of being motivated by incentives. Rather than pursuing some reward, it’s the avoidance of some consequence or painful punishment that sparks someone into action. For example, married couples may “forsake all others” not out of love or commitment but out of a fear that they may be “taken to the cleaners” by their spouses if their infidelities are revealed.

Another example wherein fear becomes the great motivator is one we’re hearing about more and more as we’re coming out of this pandemic—the fear of being poor. The fear of being poor has kept many people in jobs they hate. It’s only now that we see a reversal as headlines are shining a light on just how many workers are quitting and refusing to go back to the way things were.

Social Motivation

Human beings are social creatures. The desire to belong is a powerful motivator. This type of social motivation sparks one’s behavior in ways that, hopefully, result in an individual being accepted by a certain group or other individuals.

The rise of the Internet and the explosion of social media engagement has been both positive and negative in its power to motivate us to be included among what during our school days would be called “the cool kids” or “cliques” (jocks, nerds, artsy, gamers, etc.). We probably all have experienced at one time or another the feelings associated with “not being chosen”—whether to be on a team to play some game or as the winning candidate for some job or competition. Social rejection can make or break us.


Before You Get Up and Go…

Know that, especially during these challenging times, it’s “normal” and very much “okay” to feel a lack of motivation. Know, too, that external motivators, such as those we’ve talked about in this article, can be great tools to get your spark back. We’ve only touched on a few here. There are many more—both external and internal.

Remember that these external motivators, such as incentive motivations, are only as powerful as the importance placed on the reward by the individual. It’s also important to note that if there isn’t an aligned internal motivation, the results will more than likely be short-lived.

For example, losing a certain amount of weight because you want to fit into some outfit you intend to wear at some public event may get you to where you want to be. But will it hold up after your party? Or will those pounds find their way back to you? If you want to be rewarded at work with that trip to the islands because you’ve topped the charts in sales and hustle to make your numbers, will you be motivated again and again for that same incentive? Or will you need more and more to stay motivated?

Viktor Frankl, the 20th-century psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and author of the best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is quoted as having said, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.” As important as external motivators like incentives may be in influencing behaviors, the key is always to align them with one’s internal “why”—only then will the results be long-lived.


So, how might incentive motivation influence you and your behavior toward goals? Knowing your answer might keep you energized no matter what your journey and help to further your successes.

Featured photo credit: Atharva Tulsi via


[1] Britannica: Incentive motivation
[2] National Governors Association: COVID-19 Vaccine Incentives
[3] verywellmind: The Incentive Theory of Motivation

Read Next