Understanding Instrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation in the Workplace

This past month we’ve talked all about the brain, emotions, and our natural and intense need to establish safe and secure relationships both at home and at work. For our last post in this series, I’m taking on an important topic when it comes to understanding behavior: intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Motivation isn’t about inspirational posters. True, lasting motivation is fundamentally about brain science. Let’s create the conditions the brain has looked for since birth in order to have meaningful and trusted relationships. 

What are extrinsic motivators?

Extrinsic motivators are motivators from outside the self. Money, for example, is a typical extrinsic motivator in the workplace. Another we see in the workplace is a pay-for-performance model (commissions, bonuses, etc). Other extrinsic motivators include “cool” workspaces, free food, and special events. Extrinsic motivators alone have proven, time and time again, to not be nearly as effective in shaping behavior as intrinsic motivators. They are fleeting and fail to create lasting motivation. Sounds hard to believe in the current culture of building awesome workspaces and offering big perks, but check out the compelling work by Alfie Kohn in Punished By Rewards to learn more about why extrinsic motivators should never stand alone as a means to engagement and retention.

So…why do we rely on extrinsic motivators so often?

Leaders have been using extrinsic motivators for decades, and they almost have it down to a science. They’re easy,convenient, and don’t require much of a manager’s energy. The problem is, those types of motivators only get you so far. Back in the twentieth century, the extrinsic motivator of a good salary was enough to keep people in their jobs. There weren’t a lot of options, and during this time, no one cared as much about finding meaning and purpose at work – they just needed the security of a job. Today, in this era of record-breaking employment rates, this isn’t the case. Now, extrinsic motivators can only take us so far. Perks, parties, and free food are fun and are nice things to provide to your employees. But, those extras only increase moment-to-moment happiness, but they fail to create real and lasting engagement.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivators come from inside the self. These motivators could stem from the way we were raised or certain values we hold tight. Intrinsic motivators are powerful drivers of behavior. For example, if one of your employees deeply values their bond with colleagues, they will consistently be motivated to show up, collaborate, and positively contribute to the work of the team because they don’t want to let their teammates down.  You don’t have to tell them to be collaborative and supportive of others. They just will, all the time. Intrinsic motivation creates consistent behavior that leaders and organizations can count on. 

Why is tapping into intrinsic motivation the better approach to leading?

If you want to move an entire team, department, and culture the key is to get at the intrinsic motivators that get employees to pivot and change their behaviors. Increasingly, employees are more concerned with how a work environment feels than how it pays. 

Dr. William A. Kahn was the first researcher to use the word engagement to describe the different employee behavior he observed. His work was published in the prestigious Academy of Management Journal in 1990. At the time, most human resource specialists and organizational leaders were focused on how to get employees more motivated and involved in their work; it was a top-down approach, focused on what tactics leaders needed to use to get employees to think differently about their work. His research suggested leaders need to think “more deeply about the choices that individuals make, consciously and not, about how much of their personal selves they wish to bring in and express” while at work.

How can we get more intrinsic motivation from our employees?

What does all this mean for today’s business leaders? Embrace a broader perspective of what drives outstanding workplace conduct. Leaders at every level of the organization need a big-picture understanding of the unchanging human need for essential social nutrients. When this vital nourishment is available in the workplace, employees respond in remarkable ways. In Kahn’s view, when employees are engaged at work, it results in increased “effort, flow, mindfulness, and intrinsic motivation…[and]…what researchers refer to as creativity…authentic, non-defensive communication, playfulness, and ethical behavior.”

Employee engagement is a mindset that encourages employees to volunteer discretionary effort, resulting in improved task performance, team integration, and personal well-being. Employee of the Month, and the like, will never deliver the rich and robust results that come from truly engaging employees on an emotional level. Creating engagement is the key to tapping into the values of community and positivity that get at intrinsic motivation. 

Key Takeaways

  • Extrinsic motivators are outside the self, like pay raises, and intrinsic motivators are inside the self, like values.
  • Relying on extrinsic motivators will not create lasting impacts in the workplace.
  • Creating an engaging work culture taps into intrinsic motivation, a lasting and powerful way to increase productivity and retain your best employees.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.