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Intrinsic motivation: Why and how to harness your employees’ inner drive

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November 18, 2022
min read

Modern-day companies offer a smorgasbord of rewards and incentives to motivate their workforces. From bonuses and employee recognition programs to company cars and fancy new job titles, there's no shortage of ways that leaders try to get people to work harder.

But what if your company’s big money incentives aren’t delivering the ROI you’d hoped for? If you’re handing out large cash prizes, but your employees still aren’t hitting their targets, this may be because you’re focusing on extrinsic instead of intrinsic motivation.

This guide will explore why internal motivation is such a powerful force, how you can foster it in your workforce, and some intrinsic motivation examples to get you started.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is the inner drive that gets you out of bed in the morning. If you've ever had a strong desire to perform an activity, just for the sheer pleasure and satisfaction of doing it, that's likely down to the internal rewards you receive. It’s what happens when you feel the urge to become lost in the plot of a book – or paint a picture because you find it relaxing and joyful.

The concept of intrinsic motivation is heavily linked to self-determination theory which is described in "Self-Determination and Intrinsic Motivation in Human Behavior" by Ryan and Deci. Their studies discuss how intrinsic motivation is essential to satisfy our three basic psychological needs:

  • Competence: Feeling confident and effective in what we're doing
  • Autonomy: Feeling in control of our own lives and destiny
  • Relatedness: Feeling connected to others

While these self-determination characteristics apply to any aspect of life, they’re highly relevant in a professional setting. As we strive to carve out a career path we find motivating, we need competence, autonomy and relatedness to succeed.

What is extrinsic motivation?

To fully understand intrinsic motivation, we must also understand its polar opposite – extrinsic motivation.

In the workplace, this manifests as being driven by extrinsic motivators like the chance of a bonus or the potential for praise. On the flipside, it could mean the risk of punishment if you miss a target like sales figures or a deadline. These positive or negative external rewards may still propel people to meet business goals, but only because of outside incentives rather than any personal passion for pursuing them.

Extrinsic incentives have been popular in the past, perhaps because they’re more tangible than their intrinsic counterparts. These external factors are easy for leaders to visualize and track, which has made them popular workforce drivers. However, as we learn more about motivated behaviors, intrinsic rewards could have the edge.

What is intrinsic motivation’s role in business?

Every business wants to achieve growth, whether expanding into new markets or becoming more efficient and profitable. But as any leader knows, growth is only possible if your team is motivated to help you achieve it.

Extrinsic motivation can be an effective short-term strategy for getting people to perform specific tasks. But intrinsic motivation is key if you want your team to be truly invested in your company's success. When people feel enthused at work, you can expect the following:

1. Less burnout

The World Health Organization formally added "burnout" to its Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) in 2019. WHO describes one of burnout’s side effects as having an "increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job." It follows that when someone feels intrinsically motivated to do their work, they’re more connected to their tasks, resulting in fewer instances of burnout.

2. More resilience and creativity

Intrinsically motivated employees have the strength to perform under pressure. When the going gets tough, they fall back on their passions and determination to see things through and unveil solutions. Psychologist Sam Glucksberg famously used a Candle Problem study to demonstrate that offering external incentives like monetary rewards can hinder innovation. But creativity and problem-solving skills shine through when people follow their own curious exploration to achieve results.

3. Greater job and life satisfaction

The Great Resignation and Quiet Quitting epidemics have highlighted the significant fallout that happens when employees don't feel connected to their work. But if leaders can cultivate an environment where team members are filled with an inner desire to achieve, that's where the magic happens. When people are jazzed about the work they’re doing, expect greater innovation, creativity, productivity and – ultimately – job satisfaction.

Intrinsic motivation examples

We know that extrinsic motivation is focused on the carrot-and-stick approach to leadership, where managers offer employees incentives to persuade them to do something or threaten them with punishment if they fail.

But what does intrinsic motivation look like? It can be hard to put your finger on a concept that's based on feelings and passions. But here are a few intrinsic motivation examples your employees might be interested in:

  • Picking up a new skill like WordPress, not because it’s required but because they love to learn.
  • Volunteering in your company’s new hire buddy program, because they enjoy helping people settle in.
  • Collaborating with a colleague on a challenging project, not because they’ll receive a bonus but because it’s interesting and they want to help.
  • Throwing themselves into team-building exercises because they find them fun.
  • Becoming a menopause ambassador for your company because they’re passionate about supporting your female colleagues and signposting relevant resources.

What drives intrinsic motivation?

Now you have a grasp on why intrinsic motivation is so integral to success and what it looks like. The next step is understanding the common factors that can spark internal motivation. These include:

  • Challenge: Employees tend to gravitate towards problem-solving activities that will get their cognitive juices flowing without being impossible to fix.
  • Curiosity: Continuous learning happens when something piques an employee’s attention and presents an opportunity for further exploratory activities. Whether a sensory curiosity (physical) or a cognitive curiosity (mental), this is incredibly motivating.
  • Recognition: People feel internal pride and satisfaction when they’ve performed well. Remember that praise from others is an extrinsic reward, but positive feedback from within is the real motivator here.
  • Cooperation: The human motivation to be involved in collaborative team environments makes work more enjoyable.
  • Competition: Healthy competition can lead to intrinsic motivation. We see this in activities that allow participants to compare their progress and skills against others in a non-threatening way.

How to foster intrinsic motivation within your team

It’s impossible to force your team members to be intrinsically motivated to perform well – this desire has to come from within. But you can build an environment where individuals are encouraged to follow their internal passions to perform well at work.

Follow these pointers to get started:

1. Hire people who appear intrinsically motivated

If you're stuck with a team that waits for you to dangle the next bonus check in front of their nose, you might need to overhaul your hiring process. During candidate screening, try to identify those with an innate drive to succeed. Ask questions about what motivates them:

  • How passionate are they about their work?
  • Do they take initiative and come up with creative solutions?
  • Do they inspire others with their enthusiasm?
  • Do they set their own goals and work towards them?

If you can identify intrinsically motivated individuals, you're one step closer to building a team that will excel without needing constant external motivation.

2. Ask for feedback

Checking in with your employees ensures they stay connected to their work and the company. The process of sending out pulse surveys or holding 1:1 meetings on a monthly basis provides you with a library of actionable data (incorporating both positive and negative feedback) to identify any motivational roadblocks.

Example: If you discover your employees don’t feel free to follow their natural curiosity and come up with creative solutions, clarify that you encourage outside-of-the-box thinking.

3. Promote autonomy

Intrinsic motivation is about giving employees a sense of control over their work. That means giving your people the freedom to make decisions, set goals and manage their time. When team members feel like they're in the driver's seat, they're more likely to be engaged and enthusiastic about their work. After all, no one likes being told what to do!

4. Encourage passion projects

It’s a win-win when employees have the chance to work on projects they're truly excited about. They get to do something they love, while the company gets to benefit from their creativity and knowledge. This is the essence of the Flow Theory, which describes that when someone's attention is fully absorbed during deep work, they feel their best and perform at their highest level.

Google's 20% time is a famous example of how passion projects intrinsically motivate people to achieve phenomenal results. The company allows its engineers to spend 20% of their time working on whatever projects interest them. This has led to some of Google's most successful products, including Google News, Google Earth, Adsense and Gmail.

5. Provide opportunities for volunteering

Charitable work can make team members feel like they're part of something larger and instill a sense of purpose in their work. It's also a great way to build team morale and improve corporate social responsibility.

Need an example? Look no further than outdoor clothing company Patagonia which offers employees up to two months of paid volunteer leave, plus regular benefits to work for the environmental group of their choice. Their explanation for this move: "When interns return, they bring back stories, inspiration, and a new commitment to our environmental mission."

6. Offer reskilling initiatives

When employees feel drawn towards another role within your organization, they may appreciate the opportunity to learn new skills and explore different areas of the business. This only works as an intrinsic motivation when they're reskilling due to curiosity about a new role and not out of obligation to develop their career for the company's sake.

7. Invest in mentoring

Helping others to grow and develop in their careers can be deeply rewarding. Teachers are passionate about passing on their knowledge and wisdom to their students. And the same enthusiasm is true for mentors. Research shows that 90% of workers who have a mentor are happy in their job. And 89% of people who are mentored are motivated to become mentors themselves in the future, continuing the cycle of continuous learning your company needs.

  1. Encourage motivation tracking within your team

Once you've chosen the blend of ways for your workforce to self-empower, the next step is for managers and employees to track what's working and what's not!

Ryan and Connell's self-regulation questionnaire (1989) is one way to measure intrinsic motivation. This model asks employees to rate the origin of their motivation when performing tasks. There are four options, including:

  • External reasons: Where the individual performs the task to avoid punishment or seek rewards.
  • Introjected reasons: When self-motivated reasons are related to self-esteem.
  • Identification reasons: Based on self-generated goals.
  • Intrinsic reasons: Where tasks are chosen based on pleasure.

Tracking the volume of people who select intrinsic reasons is a useful barometer. If the numbers are high compared to external reasons, you'll know your employees can bring their whole selves to work and find passion and fulfillment in their roles.

Individual employees can also take ownership of their own motivational drive by using Timely to track how connected they feel to their work. Every activity they complete is automatically captured, which is fantastic for understanding how their personal productivity levels link to specific tasks. Timely is also surveillance-free, meaning that team members have autonomy over monitoring their progress.

Start building a culture of intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation could be a game-changer for engagement levels in your organization. When employees genuinely enjoy the rush of taking on more responsibility at work or reaching their personal goals, you'll be amazed at how much of a difference it makes to your KPIs and, ultimately, your profits.

The bottom line: the key to fostering an environment of intrinsic motivation is to involve your employees in their career development. Talk to them, ask them what they want and make sure you provide them with the necessary resources to achieve.

The original version of this article was published in
October 2022
It was most recently updated in
November 2022
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