Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation in the Workplace

Many companies have understood and embraced the importance of employee engagement. The wise ones have made earnest efforts to improve this via a carefully considered internal comms strategy. But psychologists tell us that there are two competing types of motivation that affect engagement: intrinsic and extrinsic.

By: James Blair on

Before we take a look at the differences between the two, let’s define ‘engagement’ and ‘motivation’ in the context of our workforces. Engagement reflects how strongly employees feel connected to their employer, and motivation reflects why these connections exist. The two are obviously interlinked, and both are important.

Intrinsic vs extrinsic

Intrinsic motivation is what is felt as a result of personal or internal drivers. It is wanting to do our best and put in maximum effort because we enjoy what we do, derive personal satisfaction from it, and feel a sense of pride in it.

Conversely, extrinsic motivation is the push to perform because of external factors and influences. Most commonly, these are either reward or punishment based. For example, reward-based might be working extra hard for a financial bonus. Punishment-based might be putting in extra effort to avoid a humiliating rollicking from a manager.

For our people to be truly engaged, the two need to be carefully balanced and managed.

No-one would deny that extrinsic motivators often succeed in yielding results. However, these results tend not to last long and are not particularly sustainable. Is a one-off bonus or fear of a stern reprimand really boosting engagement in those on the receiving end? Are relationships benefiting from either? The dangling carrot approach has been a default approach for generations, but whilst it can provides a short-term and temporary boost to efforts, it can also become counter-productive, instilling an unhealthy culture where workers expect a reward for every achievement made or task well done. This results in reduced effort (but increased resentment) when there is no such bonus available. Similarly, working in fear of reprimand might encourage extra effort for a short time, but actual engagement levels will be decimated by this kind of maltreatment. Show me a worker who’s consistently working under those conditions and I’ll show you a worker who’s most significant efforts are being channelled into looking for a new job!

So, if intrinsic trumps extrinsic, how can we cultivate the intrinsic? If those motivators are personal or internal to the receiver, can we influence them at all? Thankfully, we can.

Here are a few ways that you can shape your company’s culture to boost intrinsic motivation:

Relationships matter

Meaningful and healthy connections between employees (including peer-to-peer, manager-down, or colleague-up) create an environment where intrinsic motivation thrives naturally. Workers who respect and like their leaders and colleagues are more likely to work harder because they feel good about supporting their team. Cooperation with our co-workers helps to create that all-important sense of community, boosting our sense of belonging.

A company’s strategy and should be to facilitate and cultivate these kinds of relationships by providing suitable social channels, meetings, and colleague-focused updates.

Encourage recognition and appreciation

Having our achievements and efforts recognised and appreciated (by those who manage us and by our peers) is huge for our intrinsic motivation. Whilst it’s true that the initial praise comes from an external source, the chemicals that our bodies release when we receive it make us feel good, and fuel our internal motivation. Wecrave more of the same, we want to earn that recognition again, which is an internal driver.

A peer-to-peer recognition system gives everyone in the business the opportunity to recognise and thank their co-workers for support given or efforts made. They allow us to show appreciation for actions that didn’t necessarily result in a tangible target being hit or an obvious benefit to the wider business being realised.

Similarly, and this is particularly true for the latest generations to join the workplace, feedback needs to be prompt and frequent. Offering praise when it’s due will instil intrinsic motivation within our people.

Use comms to instil a sense of purpose

Understanding how our work fits into the bigger picture and how we are helping our teams (and the wider organisation) to achieve their goals, motivates us and makes us more passionate about our contributions. We feel that we matter. We believe that our work is of value and is valued.

Often, this is down to internal comms. If our people don’t understand how or why their work is important, we need to tell them. If we help them to see and feel their value, their intrinsic motivation will rule.

Support personal growth

Encouraging problem-solving and offering proportionate challenge will inspire our people to learn new skills and achieve personal growth. This is vital for intrinsic motivation. Providing support and collaborative solution instead of just giving answers without explanation, and delegating work with the right instruction and guidance, are two further ways of raising self-esteem and boosting our people’s intrinsic motivation.

In conclusion, there may be, at times, room for both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in your business. But overlooking the intrinsic ones is a fools’ game. Your colleagues’ engagement, commitment, productivity, and loyalty will all suffer in the end. Communication, recognition, and connection are crucial.