Unlocking the power of intrinsic motivation at work

1st February 2018 · 3 min read

Unlocking the power of intrinsic motivation at work

As a leader who wants to get the best out of your top employees, you can give them a pay raise, offer non-wage perks and benefits, and share positive feedback. These things are great, but they don’t get to the core of what motivates people. Intrinsic motivation is what really makes your workforce happier and more productive.

Extrinsic motivation vs. intrinsic motivation

There are two main types of work motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation originates outside the individual and refers to behavior driven by the prospect of external rewards. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, arises from inside the individual and refers to behavior resulting from the prospect of an emotional response, like the feeling of enjoyment an employee gets from their work.

Dangle a carrot in front of them, and they will follow: employees who are extrinsically motivated will do things to receive a pay raise, bonuses, or simply recognition for their excellent work. Introducing such rewards is easy, and if your goal is to increase the performance of your employees, don’t hesitate to invest time in money in your workforce.

It’s important to realize that trying to motivate employees through external rewards is a double-edged sword; it can increase performance until the point extrinsically motivated employees receive their reward, but, as countless studies found, it also overrides intrinsic motivation. Great employees deserve great working conditions, but the prospect of money or praise shouldn’t be what drives people.

Coming from the Latin word “intersecus” that translates into “from within,” intrinsic motivation is by nature hard to influence from the outside. However, it’s possible, and it’s not rocket science. Research found that people are happier when they share the values of their peer group. Therefore, the key to making your employees’ work more enjoyable is enabling them to identify with the company’s shared values and goals. It’s within a leader’s circle of influence to give your organization a personality employees can identify with and hire people who share your values.

The proven value of intrinsically motivated employees

While the impact of external rewards on employee motivation and performance is scientifically disputed, the positive impact of intrinsic motivation in the workplace is well supported by scientific evidence. Here are some pieces of research that caught our attention:

  • Recent McKinsey data shows that employees who are intrinsically motivated are 32% more committed to their job, have 46% higher job satisfaction, and perform 16% better than other employees.
  • A 2012 study from Cho and Perry showed that intrinsic motives have three times the impact on employee engagement levels than extrinsic motives.
  • Research from O’Driscoll and Randall found that intrinsic rewards like feelings of joy or personal fulfillment have greater impact on employee retention than extrinsic rewards like money or recognition.
  • Intrinsic motivation is a prerequisite for “organizational citizenship behaviors,” a phenomenon where employees are willing to go beyond their formal job roles to help their team move forward. A meta-analysis based on 168 independent samples found that organizations were significantly more effective and efficient where citizenship behaviors were observed.

Four strategies to build intrinsic motivation

We know that intrinsic motivation increases employee engagement, satisfaction, and performance. But how can leaders influence something that originates inside employees? Here are a few recommendations:

1. Stop micromanaging  teams and employees

If you are micromanaging people, you are killing intrinsic motivation. Research has shown that the more talented an employee is, the more frustrating is it for them not to have the freedom to prove their talent. Grant teams autonomy. Encourage team leads to trust that team members are capable of deciding what’s best for the team.

2. Assign projects that match with employees’ personalities and interests

Ask your employees what work they enjoy doing and excel at. Would you ask a highly analytical employee to design a customer training program? Or would you ask a service-oriented employee to do it? For the service-oriented employee designing a training program would be a natural fit. Maybe that analytical employee would design an awesome program, too, but they would probably find other things more enjoyable.

3. Mutually agree on goals to achieve

Just as parents have closer relations with their children than a babysitter, who cares for their child in return for money, a goal means more to you if it’s your own. Communicating the strategic direction of your organization and giving managers plenty of scope while setting their goals will trigger the kind of intrinsic motivation that ownership brings.

4. Unite your workforce behind a shared goal

Set an inspiring goal for your company and communicate it to everyone. If your employees know the direction and share the purpose of your organization, they will find their work much more meaningful and enjoyable. Consider implementing a framework like OKR that helps turn strategy into measurable and motivational goals everyone can work toward.

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  • Hi! Like your article, but I disagree with the fact that you claim there is such a thing called “extrinsic motivation” – it’s a flawed conept. There is no such thing as extrinsic motivation, only intrinsic, according to Dr Steven Reiss, who made empirical research on what motivates people. The result is 16 basic needs (all intrinsic) that all people share, just to a different degree. What you are referring to as “carrots” is actually external rewards triggering the intrinsic need of, for example, Status.

    • Maresch Bär says:

      That’s awesome input, and Reiss’ theory of motivation is an interesting way to look at the subject. However, using the terms “extrinsic” and “intrinsic motivation” is primarily a practical way to categorize motives or rewards by their origin (internal or external). The studies presented in this article, among many others, found that the origin of what triggers certain behavior indeed has an impact on individuals. Anyway, thanks for the comment, Reiss’ 16 basic needs are definitely something to keep in mind for us and the readers of this blog!

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