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What intrinsic motivation is and how it works

December 19, 2022 - 15 min read
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    There’s no question that motivation is key to employee engagement, productivity and performance. Engagement stems from the sense of belonging and purpose that employees feel at work. Motivation is the desire to act on those feelings and deliver our best work. 

    There are many different types of motivation. Businesses traditionally focused on increasing external motivation–offering target-related bonuses, for instance. But recent studies suggest that intrinsic motivation matters most when it comes to managing employee performance.

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    What is intrinsic motivation?

    Ryan and Deci developed the concept of intrinsic motivation in their work on Self-Determination Theory. They overturned the behaviorist idea that the best way to get people to perform tasks was to give them external incentives. Instead, they found that people were far more motivated by their own thoughts and feelings about the task. In some cases, their research found that extrinsic motivation actually decreases our interest in the task.  

    Ryan and Deci came up with the following definition of intrinsic motivation: 

    “Intrinsic motivation is defined as the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external products, pressures, or rewards.”

    In other words: 

    Intrinsic motivation vs. extrinsic motivation

    Social psychology tells us that people experience two different types of motivation. These are: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation

    Extrinsic motivation 

    Extrinsic motivation is when you behave in a particular way either to receive an external reward, or to avoid a negative outcome. Extrinsic motivation is: 

    • Driven by basic psychological needs (the need for food, shelter and safety) or secondary needs (such as belonging, approval or status) 
    • Either autonomous (something we decide to do) or controlled (when we are pressured to complete a task by the threat of punishment)
    • Best for short-term motivation
    • Likely to encourage greater productivity

    Intrinsic motivation 

    Intrinsic motivation comes from within us. We feel driven to complete a task or activity because we value the task itself. We find it interesting or exciting, it aligns with our values, or we will enjoy the feelings it creates in us once we complete it. 

    Intrinsic motivation is: 

    • Driven by internal rewards e.g. proving our competence or building relationships with other people
    • Likely to result in higher levels of performance, persistence, and employee satisfaction

    group of engineers working on a project at a small table

    How intrinsic motivation functions in the workplace

    When it comes to the workplace, employees need both intrinsic rewards and extrinsic rewards to feel truly engaged. The extrinsic rewards of work are obvious–we receive pay, benefits and economic stability in exchange for doing our job. However, internal motivation is also extremely important. 

    An intrinsically motivated employee isn’t only thinking about losing their job or getting a bonus. They are also driven to perform out of a sense of satisfaction, enjoyment, or belonging that they gain from their work. 

    They are enthused by workplace challenges, stimulated by their tasks, or excited by the opportunity to learn and grow. They like the sense that they know what they are doing, and that their employer recognizes and appreciates their skills and abilities. They may also feel that their values align well with those of their employer, and that they are contributing to a greater mission. 

    Research shows that when we are intrinsically motivated to pursue a long-term goal at work, we are more likely to persist. Working towards goals that we value satisfies our psychological need for autonomy and competence. This creates a positive feedback loop and increases the likelihood that we will stick with it.

    Examples of intrinsic motivation

    Here are a few examples of intrinsic motivation in the workplace: 

    • Collaborating with teammates because you enjoy building relationships with them 
    • Dedicating time each day to complete a leadership training program 
    • Strengthening your communication skills so you can do your job more efficiently 
    • Participating in a cross-team “hackathon” because you find coming up with new ideas exciting 
    • Working towards a task for its own sake, not because you have been instructed to do it 
    • Staying late to finish a project because meeting deadlines is important to you personally 
    • Acting as a mentor to a new hire because you enjoy sharing your expertise
    • Setting and working towards your own development goals 
    • Continuing to work in the same company because you feel a strong sense of belonging 
    • Achieving an ambitious target because it gives you a feeling of personal satisfaction

    The 3 types of intrinsic motivation

    There are three types of intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. 

    Autonomy 

    Autonomy is the human need to control our own life and our environment. For instance, employees might be more intrinsically motivated to achieve a sales target if they set it themselves. 

    When it comes to the workplace, autonomy refers to how much control we have over how and when we work. As we shift to hybrid work and flexible schedules, autonomy is becoming more important to knowledge workers.  

    Mastery

    Mastery (sometimes referred to as competence) is the desire to develop our skills and reach our potential. At work, mastery refers to our drive to become very good at our jobs, merely for the sake of knowing that we do our work well. When we increase our mastery, we also increase our sense of self-esteem. An employee who takes on a challenging project for the sake of improving their professional skills is motivated by mastery. 

    Purpose

    Purpose is the sense that we are working towards a meaningful goal or vision.An employee at an ethical clothing company might be motivated to perform well at work because they want to improve the fashion industry. 

    You can encourage a sense of purpose by linking individual objectives to organizational goals.

    man in a palid shirt writing on a notepad with a computer

    5 intrinsic motivation factors

    As a manager, it’s crucial that you understand how intrinsic motivation works, so that you can help to inspire your team. There are 5 key factors that promote intrinsic motivation: 

    1. Belonging 

    Creating a feeling of belonging is crucial to creating a high-performance workplace culture. When we feel that we belong, we feel that we are a valued member of a group, and that the workplace is a safe environment where we can be ourselves. Employees feel intrinsically motivated to increase their sense of relatedness. For example, they might be more motivated on a project if they can work closely with teammates. 

    1. Control 

    This factor relates to our drive toward autonomy. Many employees feel inherently motivated to take control of their time, their schedule, and their priorities. For instance, employees may feel more motivated to work towards a project that they have chosen themselves, like Google’s concept of “20% time”

    2. Appreciation 

    We have an innate need to be recognized and appreciated for our efforts. Employees are often more motivated when they receive frequent feedback and praise from managers and peers. 

    3. Challenge

    We are intrinsically motivated to pursue goals and activities that present the right level of challenge. Goals that are too ambitious can be demotivating. But difficult but possible goals (also known as stretch goals) appeal to our drive toward mastery. 

    4. Curiosity 

    Human beings are naturally curious. We are intrinsically motivated to find answers to questions or expand our knowledge of the world. Curiosity drives us to learn new things, simply for the pleasure and satisfaction of learning. 

    woman expalining a theory on a window to her team

    5 ways to increase intrinsic motivation at work

    In the words of Andrew Carnegie, “Teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to produce uncommon results.” And, while external motivators are always important in the workplace, bonuses and salary hikes will only take you so far. If you want to help your team be the best they can be, you need to know how to harness the power of intrinsic motivation. 

    So, how can you increase the intrinsic motivation of your team? Here are our 5 top tips for managers: 

    1. Be a leader, not just a manager 

    Boosting your team’s intrinsic motivation levels takes an inspiring vision. As a manager, you need to help draw a direct connection between their personal values and the work they do together. In other words, it’s not enough to be a manager–it’s time to become a leader

    To be a leader to your team, empower them to see the intention behind their specific goals, so they can gain a sense of autonomy and purpose. Leaders help their teams to embrace their own leadership abilities, step up and take ownership of the team’s goals and achievements. 

    Finally, leaders bring meaning and context to the goals of the team. Don't say: “We need to complete this project on time because management is breathing down my neck." Instead, try saying, “We need to complete this project on time because the customers are counting on us to help them.” 

    1. Empower your team 

    Autonomy is key to intrinsic motivation. It’s your role to make sure that your team has the confidence to plan their own workloads and solve their own challenges.  To empower your team, try the following: 

    • Clarifying the desired outcomes, and then letting them work out how to achieve those outcomes.
    • Encouraging frequent, open feedback. Make sure everyone knows that their opinions are equally valuable.
    • Recognizing and rewarding initiative, self-improvement and personal responsibility when you see it.
    • Creating psychological safety. Help the team feel comfortable to take risks, make decisions, share thoughts and ideas, and learn from their mistakes.

    2. Polish up your coaching skills 

    Many approaches to coaching focus on boosting intrinsic motivation. So, if you’re struggling to harness your team’s inner motivation, you might want to consider learning coaching skills. For instance, BetterUp coaches use the 3D Model of Motivation: 

    1. Discover and decide (understanding what motivates each individual);
    2. Develop discrepancy (help people shift beliefs and move towards their goals); 
    3. Deepen the drive (helping people dig more deeply into their own motivation for change).

    4. Build trust 

    Whether you’re trying to motivate a sales team or a group of nurses, your team will be more intrinsically motivated if they trust you and each other.  To build trust within your team, try the following: 

    • Demonstrating integrity. Keep your word, be reliable, and answer questions honestly even when it feels uncomfortable
    • Showing that you trust your employees. Listen before leaping to assumptions, involve them in your decisions, and ask for suggestions
    • Sharing your team's achievements and making sure they receive fair treatment

    5. Create a motivating working environment

    It’s hard to feel intrinsically motivated when we’re stressed, overworked or even just uncomfortable. When it comes to motivating a team, don’t overlook the basics of employee wellness. Make sure to: 

    • For those in the office, create a comfortable, relaxing workspace.
    • Check that your remote employees have a healthy work environment, and consider offering a well-being stipend if needed. 
    • Review your employees’ schedules and offer as much flexibility as you can to support their (and your own) work-life balance.

    Increase your team’s intrinsic motivation for top performance 

    If you want to boost your team’s performance, you need to engage their intrinsic motivation–their sense of purpose, autonomy and mastery. To do so, aim to be a true leader, build a trusting environment, and become their coach as well as their manager.

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    Published December 19, 2022

    Maggie Wooll

    Managing Editor

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