The undermining effect revisited: The salience of everyday verbal rewards and self‐determined motivation

Rebecca Hewett, Neil Conway

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Self-determination theory suggests that some rewards can undermine autonomous motivation and related positive outcomes. Key to this undermining is the extent to which rewards are perceived as salient in a given situation; when this is the case individuals tend to attribute their behavior to the incentive and the intrinsic value of the task is undermined. The role of salience has yet to be explicitly tested with respect to work motivation; we know little about whether undermining occurs in relation to verbal rewards, which characterize everyday work. We examine this in a field-based quantitative diary study of 58 employees reporting 287 critical incidents of motivated behavior. When considering simple direct effects, the undermining effect was not supported; highly salient verbal rewards associated positively with introjected and external motivation, but at no cost to autonomous motivation. However, moderator analysis found support for the undermining effect for complex tasks; highly salient verbal rewards associated positively with external motivation while associating negatively with intrinsic and identified motivation. The findings suggest that verbal reward salience is an important characteristic of verbal reward perceptions and that salient verbal rewards are not advisable for more complex tasks but can have a valuable motivational impact for simple tasks.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)436-455
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of organizational behavior
Issue number3
Early online date2 Sept 2015
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2016


  • Self-determination theory
  • undermining effect
  • verbal rewards
  • diary study

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