The power of intrinsic motivation

Employee engagement is well-known to improve bottom-line results. Plus it feels good. What leader doesn’t want to walk into an office full of people who genuinely want to be there? We know a lot about employee engagement: what factors drive it and why it matters. But why does engagement actually work?  It’s about intrinsic motivation.

From restorative justice theory to childhood education models, the study of intrinsic motivation is vast and persuasive. Yet in some areas, like a business, we aren’t fully realizing its potential. As Dan Pink  (author of the excellent book Drive) says, “there’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”

It seems there are still issues where some companies use extrinsic motivation – like compensation –  to drive employee engagement programs. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is far more long-lasting and powerful.

What motivates behaviour?

Behaviour is thought to be motivated by either intrinsic or extrinsic factors, or a combination of both. Intrinsic motivation is based on the psychological rewards one receives from doing the work itself. It’s the opposite of extrinsic motivation, which is based on rewards external to the work and controlled by other people or forces. So let’s use baking a cake as an example. Intrinsically, you enjoy the act of baking — how it makes you feel. Extrinsically, maybe someone is paying you to bake the cake.

In an ideal world, you get paid for doing what you love – a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. You love baking, so you own a bakeshop.

But sometimes extrinsic rewards are the only focus. Extrinsic reward models in the business world developed in a time when work was largely repetitive when workers stayed with the same employer for most of their lives when the culture was hierarchical and performance was based on attendance as much as the outcome. There were few intrinsic rewards in the work itself, and so extrinsic rewards were needed as motivation.

Extrinsic rewards are often rankings-based, comparing one employee’s performance to another’s. They are usually monetary – pay increases, bonuses, shares. And money’s important. People need to be paid fairly. But when you factor in fair pay, motivation based on intrinsic rewards is more potent than extrinsic ones.

Today, there are few truly repetitive jobs. And even then, workers look for meaningful, autonomous, progressive and challenging opportunities.  According to the JobSage team, this is the right formula to strengthen the ties between the company and each of its employees. Not the easiest thing to do, but absolutely worth the effort.

Fundamental human needs

The psychological model called Self-Determination Theory outlines three fundamental human needs: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Dan Pink suggests a fourth: purpose.

How do these connect to the workplace?

  • Relatedness: We want to interact with like-minded people – to be collaborative and part of a team.
  • Competence: Our tasks are challenging, but appropriate. We feel a sense of progress. There are opportunities for learning – through self-discovery – and self-development. Appreciation is expressed for good work.
  • Autonomy: We have a natural desire to have control over ourselves and our environment. We want the flexibility to work when and where we want. We want to be able to make decisions. And we want to pursue our own interests, even when we work. Look at how Google lets its employees devote 20%of their hours to outside pursuits. Or companies that pay employees for time spent on volunteer initiatives.
  • Purpose: We want a sense of having a higher calling, that what we contribute makes a difference.

All four needs need to be met

When these four needs are met, the result is high employee engagement. What this looks like is a connection between what you as an employee do every day and the organizational vision; input into overall goals; trust in your decision-making abilities; autonomy to make those decisions; psychological safety (no fear of unfair criticism or punishment); access to the resources you need to your job; the freedom to decide how you want to use those tools; regular feedback and appreciation; and a culture of teamwork and collaboration.

Boiled down, you’re treated as essential to your company’s success.

Why use intrinsic reward models?

What employers look for are employees who add value. The behaviours that add the most value in today’s workplace include innovation, problem-solving, decision-making, participation, and enthusiasm. These behaviours are strongly encouraged by the sense of relatedness, competence, autonomy and purpose.

In addition, intrinsic motivation organizations see:

When we create an environment that fulfils our fundamental needs, we keep employees happier, more committed, more innovative, more productive, and overall more invested in organizational goals.

  • About the Author
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Hi, I’m Scott King. I’m a collaboration expert. I’m an engineer and endurance athlete, and co-founder of ReadyTalk, a Cloud Communications Provider that helps companies have more effective meetings and deliver high impact webinars. I want to learn something from every situation, push myself to personal bests, give back in meaningful ways – and have fun doing it.
I explore ways to enhance how we exchange ideas. To bring design, technology, organizational structure and leadership techniques together to make workplaces more creative and productive.
I’m really excited about the “Future of Work,” specifically: how worklife integration is evolving; how to increase productivity by encouraging people to choose the places and tools that let them work best; and how to improve organizational communications so creativity flourishes, and people feel empowered.