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A job well done is its own reward.
You’ve probably heard some version of this sentiment. And there’s some truth to it. For many of us, our jobs are a way to fulfill our internal purpose and passions. We’re happy to do it for its own sake.
But that doesn’t mean external factors don’t matter — far from it. Whether you’re an independent contractor, a mid-level employee, or an entrepreneur, many things probably get you out of bed in the morning.
Think about when you were a child. Your parents probably asked to do the dishes, make your bed, and take out the trash. And they kept you motivated with a punishment or reward system.
Perhaps it was gold stars, a weekly money allowance, or the threat of being grounded. In any case, none of these had to do with your life mission.
Most of us still respond to a range of external motivators. You need money to put food on the table. You might want recognition and reward, a fancy job title, and likes on LinkedIn.
These are considered extrinsic motivations, and they are great tools to keep you at your best. Tangible rewards (and punishments) are part of how many of us were raised, part of our social fabric. We might not even think about them, but they motivate us in our choices and actions.
So let’s dive in and see how extrinsic motivators work.
What is extrinsic motivation?
Here’s the most common motivators definition: what shapes human behavior and drives you to act.
We’re motivated by basic needs for our bodies: food, shelter, and safety. But sometimes, we’re motivated by what might seem less basic, like a sense of belonging, approval, or status, even to the detriment of our basic needs.
Many people have heard of Maslow’s hierarchy, but the pyramid shape doesn’t mean people don’t try to fill higher-level needs with gaps in the base. That’s why you can see examples of people pursuing love, fulfillment, or comfort rather than acting in a way that would pay the rent or buy groceries.
Two sources of motivation exist: extrinsic or intrinsic.
Extrinsic motivation refers to when you complete a task or behave in a certain way to 1) receive a reward or 2) avoid a negative outcome or consequence.
External rewards can be tangible, including money or getting good grades, or intangible, like praise from others. People experience two types of extrinsic motivation:
- Autonomous extrinsic motivation: a person completes an activity of their own free will. For example, they show up to work to keep their job and earn compensation.
- Controlled extrinsic motivation: a person is pressured or coerced to perform a task. This type of motivation results from direct threats, a bully, or even a boss standing over their shoulder, ready to fire them. We can also include compliance activities like filing taxes or showing up to traffic school where there is an implied and fairly certain threat of punishment for not doing the activity.
Extrinsic motivators gain their power through a phenomenon called operant conditioning. This is the idea that we can reinforce certain behaviors using external rewards and punishments. We see this a lot in neuroscience, where cheese motivates mice.
Types of extrinsic motivators
Everyone responds to different motivators. And it’s difficult to know how a person will respond to a reward or threat. But there are a few incentives everyone can relate to:
On one level, we all have basic psychological needs that affect our well-being:
These are powerful extrinsic motivators because we need them to live. There’s a reason why Americans spend 40% of their income on housing and food.
On another level, we can be motivated by secondary needs. These include:
Even these were necessary for survival once upon a time. Scientists theorize that “belonging” and “approval” meant you were part of a pack that could help find food and shelter and defend you against predators.
If you’re struggling to stay motivated, we understand — it happens to the best of us. At BetterUp, our coaches will provide the perspective and accountability you need to keep going. We’ll help you develop a plan and stay motivated to reach your goals.
Theories of motivation
Motivation is a heavily-researched phenomenon in the world of psychology. Here are two popular theories for why we do what we do.
The hierarchy of needs
If you studied psychology at any point since high school, you’ve probably heard of Maslow’s hierarchy. It’s a theory that categorizes human motivators into a pyramid. We begin at the lowest level and gradually make our way up when our needs are met. Here’s a breakdown of each level:
- Physiological needs: air, food, water, warmth, and rest
- Safety needs: Security, safety
- Belongingness and love needs: intimate relationships, friends, community
- Self-esteem: prestige and feelings of accomplishment
- Self-actualization: achieving one’s full potential
The self-determination theory
Human motivation is closely entwined with self-determination theory (SDT). The theory, coined by psychologists Edward Deci and Robert Ryan in 1985, says people have an inherent tendency to seek growth, new skills, and opportunities.
This concept also states that the organizations people work within — be it a home, an office, a post-secondary institution, or a nation — need to support individuals' need for external and internal motivation. SDT says that when these environments encourage autonomy, feelings of competency, and connectedness, an individual’s sense of motivation will increase.
Extrinsic motivation vs. intrinsic motivation
The main difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is that the latter comes from within. This means you complete a task because it's rewarding to you personally. You derive something — satisfaction, intellectual stimulation, a sense of connection or meaning, easing of fear — from doing it.
These different types of motivation are both effective — even more so when they’re balanced together. For example, we’ll say you’re working on a term paper in college. You want to finish your paper early to have a night at the movies with your friends.
This is an extrinsic motivator. Your intrinsic motivation to complete your paper is your desire to master the subject you’re writing about.
Based on the intrinsic motivation definition, you can see how they are a wiser strategy to achieve long-term goals. It will help you feel more fulfilled. It taps into your identity, passion, emotions, and intellect.
When you use both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, your sense of empowerment will increase, and you'll work harder. You’ll experience a boost in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates memory, sleep, and, most importantly, mood. You’ll have more confidence in your capabilities and more energy to keep going and do even better next time.
5 examples of extrinsic motivation
We use extrinsic motivation in many forms each day:
- Doing your best in a basketball tournament to win a first-place medal.
- Working hard on a group presentation for class to earn praise and positive feedback from your classmates or coworkers.
- Using a cash-back credit card to collect points or discounts.
- Teaching your dog obedience by rewarding him with a treat once he listens to your commands.
- Performing routine work tasks on time to receive a paycheck.
Remember that extrinsic motivation includes avoiding punishment. You might work extra hard on an assignment to avoid getting reprimanded by your boss.
Extrinsic motivation in the workplace
If you’re a manager, extrinsic motivators can play a crucial role in influencing your employees’ behavior. The trick is finding out which ones will work best for your team.
Chances are they’re already extrinsically motivated to some degree. They’re receiving a paycheque from your company, after all. But if they’re performing particularly well or you’re hoping to encourage improvement, you can sweeten the pot with other incentives:
- Pay raises
- Health benefits
- Paid days off
Not only can this help motivate your employees, but it can also help reduce employee turnover — an increasingly important goal as the labor shortage continues its grip on the country.
But you shouldn’t limit yourself to purely financial motivators — your employees might respond to other incentives, too. If their work produces positive outcomes, praise them regularly. Positive reinforcement will improve their mental health and make them feel valued.
You could also gamify some of their tasks by creating a points system for internal competition. Whoever has the most points wins a prize. This could appeal to your team’s innate sense of competition and can make otherwise boring tasks more exciting.
How to apply extrinsic motivation
Extrinsic motivators don’t have to be controlled by other people. You can create your own reward system to build healthy habits, upskill yourself, or keep yourself on task. Try using a tracker app on your phone, checking off a calendar, or putting checkmarks on a whiteboard. This can help you keep up the pace.
The reward should always be suitable for the undertaking. If you promise your child an entire chocolate cake for simply cleaning his room, they may value the prize and expect grand reinforcements more often instead of adjusting their behavior. When parents, teachers, or babysitters do this, they’re undermining children's intrinsic interest to please.
Extrinsic rewards are most appropriate when:
- People have little interest in a task.
- Someone lacks the skills to get started.
- You need a short-term motivator.
- You're working on a lengthy project and need small incentives along the way to power through.
Are there any downsides?
When you lean on extrinsic motivators to get by, it’s important to be mindful of the overjustification effect. Originally theorized by psychology professor Dr. Lepper, this phenomenon occurs whenever an extrinsic motivator overpowers your intrinsic motivations and internal desires.
Dr. Lepper proposed that when presented with too much external regulation, children eventually lose the desire to behave well for their own sake. Let’s say you give your child candy every time they clean up after themselves.
Next time, unless you offer candy again, they won’t want to put their toys away. Or, even worse, they’ll threaten to destroy their toys unless you give them candy — blackmailing you into getting what they want.
This is a dangerous form of extrinsic motivation. Not only can it incentivize poor behavior in children, it can also negatively impact adults.
Perhaps it’s simplest to demonstrate with an example. The overjustification effect is why hobbies lose their appeal when they become a side-hustle. An amateur painter can successfully sell their creations online.
But if they’re too successful, the monetary value of their labor (extrinsic reward) replaces the fun they had painting as a hobbyist (intrinsic reward). Their hobby is now a cash-generating activity rather than an outlet for their creativity. Painting feels like any other job.
This phenomenon isn’t limited to hobbies — it can show up in all areas of your life. At work, you might receive a bonus for positive customer reviews. Your intrinsic motivation was to help your clients solve problems. Now, you do it for the money.
Extrinsic motivators can help you get started on a difficult task. But it quickly becomes unsustainable if they’re your only reason for doing things. Check in with yourself regularly: is painting still fun, or are you just doing it for the reward? You may need to stop selling your work to rediscover your passion.
It doesn’t matter how you find the motivation to keep going; all that matters is that you do. Just be careful that external rewards don’t overtake your internal desire to do awesome things.
We’re all more capable than we believe. Once you start, who knows what you can accomplish.
At BetterUp, we strive every day to help others realize that within themselves. As you learn to tap into your own motivation, you may also learn more about motivating others. If you’re leading a team or a family, it’s key to recognize that we don’t all respond to the same factors in the same way.
Experiment with how you use extrinsic motivation for yourself and others.
Needing external motivation is neither selfish nor abnormal, and finding it is a form of self-care and persistence. Responsibilities are important but so are finding ways to encourage others and yourself. If you put in the work, you’ll reap the benefits.