The Value of Intrinsically Motivated Employees

The research around intrinsically motivated individuals overwhelming points to positive outcomes for organizations. Intrinsically motivated employees tend to be more engaged in their work, leading to better performance. They report having higher job satisfaction, which reduces turn over. They tend to be more creative, which can lead to innovative ideas. All these benefits can lead to high overall performance by the organization.
Despite this, most organizations still structure their human resource practices in a way that doesn’t tap into the benefits of intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic rewards, such as money and titles, are still widely used as incentives and job structures and hierarchy still permeate most large organizations. This could be stifling the real potential of each employee and even the organization.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is the desire to accomplish a task because it is personally rewarding. It is different from extrinsic motivation, where an individual is driven to perform a task to receive an external reward or to avoid punishment. Intrinsically motivated individuals find value in doing something for an internal reward, such as mastery, purpose, and or simple enjoyment.

An example of extrinsic motivation versus intrinsic motivation can be seen in sports. Athletes who are extrinsically motivated will compete to win money or a gold medal whereas athletes who are intrinsically motivated compete because they love playing and or mastering the sport. Late basketball player Kobe Bryant is a great example of an athlete who was intrinsically motivated by the mastery of basketball.

Factors of intrinsically motivated people

Famous author Daniel Pink synthesized many years worth of motivation research into his book, Drive. He highlights how autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the key factors for intrinsic motivation. In his TED talk, he talked through simple and widely observable examples of how humans innately pursue these intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards. For example, people take their limited discretionary time to learn to play musical instruments purely for mastery or enjoy and for no money. His conclusion with money is that its only use in motivation is to pay enough to take the question of money off the table.

But extrinsic rewards do work…

If you have managed a team you may argue that extrinsic rewards, like money, does in fact drive results. While this is true, the research shows that there are significant drawbacks to this approach. Extrinsic rewards only work in the short-term and can even destroy existing intrinsic motivation. Research also indicates that extrinsic rewards only work for tasks that are algorithmic in nature (meaning if you put X amount of hours you will produce X amount of output). Tasks that are difficult and require more cognitive ability, such as solving the question of how to grow the business, show little relationship with the amount of money that is rewarded.

Psychologist Frederick Herzberg’s famous 1968 article, How Do You Motivate Employees, demonstrated best how external rewards do not instill motivation within employees. Take the following excerpt example: a manager using a monetary bonus to incentivize their support team to improve the customer service NPS score is not instilling intrinsic motivation in the employee. The manager is the person who cares about the customer service outcomes; the employees is trying to improve customer service because they care about the bonus. With this, if you take away the bonus, the employee may very well regress to prior behaviour and customer service will regress as well.

How to nurture intrinsically motivated employees

Building an organizational environment that nurtures intrinsically motivated employees can lead to higher performance. Here are a few tips for facilitating the right kind of work environment:

  • Hire for purpose – when hiring, try to uncover the what the interviewee’s purpose is. Uncovering what drives an individual will help the organization better manage the individual’s performance and ensure that both the business and individual make the most of the employee-employer relationship.
  • Rethink the role – just because someone does not align directly with the organization doesn’t mean that their intrinsic motivations will not make them successful in their role. For example, you may hire someone who is passionate about finance metrics as your accountant for your technology company. While their interest GAAP measures and excel spreadsheets may far outweigh their interest in AI and blockchain, their intrinsic motivation for mastery will drive them to succeed and they may even provide a new perspective about their role.
  • Rethink rewards – while money will always be factor, it is only effective as a reward to a certain degree. Talk to employees to understand what other perks they vale. In Pink’s TED talk, he provides the example of software company Atlassian’s Fedex days where employees can work on whatever they what, with whoever they want, however they want, so long as they showed their results in the end. This led to higher levels of productivity in all areas including more bug fixes and new product and feature ideas.
  • Facilitate the three factors – this is probably the cornerstone of Atlassian’s Fedex days, in which they removed all barriers that allowed employees autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Find ways to facilitate this type of work environment to allow for employees to tap into their intrinsic motivations at work.

Key takeaways

  • Rewards for intrinsically motivated people are autonomy, mastery, and purpose
  • Intrinsically motivated employees typically perform better in their role, are more engaged in their work, and produce creative solutions
  • Find ways to facilitate a work environment that allows for employees to tap into their intrinsic motivations

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