Illustration: Jo Xiuan Zhou
One of the beautiful things about humans is that we all think differently. And that goes beyond what we think—which political party we support or whether we believe that Rihanna was great or spectacular in Ocean’s Eight—into how we think. For example, the internet was abuzz a few weeks ago with a discussion about people who process thoughts through an internal monologue and those who don’t. Mental characteristics vary greatly and what motivates us is no exception.
Do internal goals inspire your choices? Or do external factors play a bigger role in driving you to do something? If you’re intrinsically motivated, you don’t need a reward in order to do things; you’re inspired by the pleasure you get from doing them. If you’re externally motivated, you may feel more driven when you know money, praise or other prizes are on the table.
Understanding how extrinsic and intrinsic motivation play out in different scenarios is especially important at work. Performance at work (both on a personal and company-wide level) depends on how individuals are motivated and enabled to achieve.
Being able to navigate between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation for yourself and others can pay off—literally. Research shows that employees with resources and opportunities that line up with their motivation style experience a higher sense of job autonomy. This in turn results in greater satisfaction and lower turnover costs.
Okay, so is it extrinsic or intrinsic motivation that drives you?
Imagine that you’re in the final stretch of a long project. Weeks of work are drawing to a close. What is it that excites you the most about reaching the finish line?
Is it the fact that your boss will call you out as the team MVP in this week’s team meeting for finishing the project on time and under budget?
Or is it the extra-large bonus you’ll get at the end of the quarter for hitting your goal?
Maybe it’s that you’re that much closer to getting that promotion, now that you’ve shown you can successfully manage a major priority.
If one of those hypotheticals resonated with you, you might be more extrinsically motivated. Extrinsic motivation comes from external rewards such as money, recognition, appreciation or other tangible benefits. Outside of work, it might look like pushing yourself to run so you can place first in a race, studying in order to ace a test, or cleaning your apartment to avoid getting into a drawn out fight with your partner about chores. You care about doing well not just for the sake of having done well, but rather for the reward that doing well provides (or to avoid the consequences of not having done well).
But maybe none of those sounded right. Maybe you’re excited to finish the project because of the sense of personal satisfaction. You like feeling like you did a good job, and you’re proud to have your name on the final presentation.
Or maybe you’re looking forward to feeling like you’ve contributed to your team’s mission by delivering good work?
Maybe you can’t wait to reflect on how you drove your own development over the course of the project and improved your skills.
If one of the above rang true for you, you might be driven by intrinsic motivation, which comes from within. It’s often described as an interest in doing an activity for its own sake, for personal satisfaction or because you find it meaningful. For you, performing well is a high of its own. You’d be driven to succeed even if no one were watching or measuring. Outside of work, that might look like running because you like running, studying because you’re interested in a subject or cleaning up because you prefer a clean environment.
Of course, no one is only motivated by just one or the other. Even if one set of options felt more relatable to you, we all need both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Would you do your job every day without pay simply for the pleasure of doing it? Probably not. And do you truly not enjoy anything unless someone else is validating you? Also unlikely.
Don’t worry about permanently identifying with one or the other camp. Do consider whether you’re driven more by extrinsic or intrinsic motivation at work, and what this means for your job.
How extrinsic and intrinsic motivation impact work
In a 2016 article, researchers at Bucknell University asked how doctors and nurses remained motivated over the duration of their careers. Both professions require high levels of competency that must be acquired over decades—not a short period of time.
The authors concluded that “sticks and carrots,” or extrinsic rewards and punishments, work well for repetitive or mundane tasks. For medical professionals, this might include seeing high volumes of patients every day, going through regular continued training or setting up for procedures.
Another study shows that extrinsic motivators work to foster interest in subjects that don’t ordinarily inspire interest (such as mundane, repetitive work), or to drive people to acquire additional knowledge and skills (such as completing training programs or certifications). Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is more effective for creativity or sustained performance.
And while extrinsic rewards work well in the short-term, they “reach a saturation point in their effectiveness,” according to the study, unless the rewards are enhanced or changed.
That might lead you to think that intrinsic motivation is superior, as it’s less likely to lose its effectiveness over time, and that you’re better off hiring people who are intrinsically motivated from the beginning.
But the study also notes that motivation is not fixed, whether intrinsic or external. The right work environment can foster the development of intrinsic motivation, even for those people who aren’t naturally wired that way.
Environments that support the development of intrinsic motivation support three psychological needs: autonomy, or feeling control over one’s own behavior; competence, or feeling effective and impactful; and relatedness, or feeling connected to others through emotional bonds.
We know that intrinsic motivation is especially beneficial because it works better over the long-term and can be developed alongside extrinsic motivators. But how do the two interact when both are present?
Another paper on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation at work sought to answer that question through a meta-analysis of research conducted over four decades. The article acknowledged that since almost all jobs have external components like salaries and promotions, the relationship between the two forms of motivation is especially important.
The authors created an additional division between extrinsic motivators: directly versus indirectly salient incentives. The former are visibly and immediately tied to performance, and might take the form of a bonus or commission. The latter are less directly related to performance, like a base salary.
Here’s what the article concluded:
• Directly salient incentives actually decrease motivation in people who are intrinsically motivated
• Indirectly salient incentives don’t increase or decrease motivation for people who are intrinsically motivated.
So using a bonus system to encourage employees who aren’t externally motivated isn’t just ineffective—it’s actively harmful. It could negatively impact employee satisfaction and long-term performance.
Cultivating intrinsic motivation in yourself and your team
Intrinsic motivation can be nurtured by helping employees feel autonomous, competent and part of a community. What this means is that individuals and managers can build an environment where everyone feels attached to a mission and understands their role in it. Unlike extrinsic motivation, too much intrinsic motivation shouldn’t have negative effects, so feel free to experiment with multiple ideas and see what works best for you and your team.
Intrinsic motivation tips for individuals
• Understand the purpose behind your work. Ask your supervisor or someone else in leadership to sit down with you and explain the company story and mission, and how your day-to-day responsibilities impact it.
• Ask for feedback and opportunities in areas you’re interested in growing in. If you enjoy public speaking, see if you can practice that skill through exposure to sales meetings or internal training.
• Get to know your coworkers. Start an office book club or go for informal catch-ups with everyone you pass in the hallway (or share Slack channels with), keeping in mind these tips for building rapport at work.
Intrinsic motivation tips for managers
• Allow your employees as much freedom as possible. Don’t redo their work or micromanage their schedules. Let them organize their own days and set their hours as much as possible. If you don’t already have a remote work option, advocate for one.
• Be intentional with your feedback. Don’t heap on praise when it’s not earned: Research suggests over-praising can decrease internal motivation. Do give specific feedback to your employees based on their personal interests and goals.
• Foster a sense of community at work. Save some budget and time for regular team bonding events and games, and engage with your employees not just as workers but as people outside of work. Celebrate their work and personal anniversaries, birthdays and other important milestones.
Sustaining extrinsic motivation in yourself and your team
Before deciding on specific extrinsic rewards, make sure you have a good understanding of what kind of performance you’re trying to encourage. Is it higher sales, more exposure, less errors, quicker response time or happier customers? Without asking these questions first, you might end up wasting resources while encouraging behavior that doesn’t directly drive the kind of results you need.
Extrinsic motivation tips for individuals
• Negotiate your pay package. Consider both direct and indirect forms of payment—bonuses and base salary—as well as healthcare and retirement benefits. If you know you do best when you have a big challenge hanging over you, see if you can increase your bonus/base split. And if your company’s unable to change the way they compensate, consider asking for fringe benefits that would motivate you, too, like getting an extra vacation day if you meet your goals ahead of schedule.
• Clarify expectations and proactively track against them. Make sure you and your manager are in hard sync about what exactly you need to do to make your bonus or be up for another promotion, and provide regular updates on where you are against them to make sure you stay in sync right up until your annual review.
Extrinsic motivation tips for managers
• Get creative with rewards. Definitely work with an HR analyst to make sure your pay scales and bonus schedules are up to industry standards. But even beyond money, offer a range of external rewards for your whole team, all of whom might be wired to value different kinds of prizes. Try giving out public recognition in team meetings for the Most Improved Developer or the Salesperson of the Week, ordering company swag when the team finishes a tough project or picking the best performer to tag along at a professional conference.
• Set and adjust milestones as needed. Extrinsic rewards only work if they’re dynamic, so make sure your team’s performance milestones evolve as your business and their capabilities evolve, too.
• Set up smaller prizes for repeated tasks and trainings. Get the best bang for your buck by using extrinsic rewards where they’re most effective. If you need your team to attend a training or re-up a legal certification, attach prizes to them, such as special lunches. Track quantity and accuracy of production goals with cash prizes.
No one approach to remaining motivated is the right one. Everyone is motivated differently—one person’s incentive might be another person’s deterrent. The key is to identify the incentives that work for you and your team.