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Intrinsic Motivation: Not Quite the Answer


Motivation. It’s the subject of countless articles, books and seminars. We all try to get it. Inspire it. Bottle it.

It’s the secret sauce in business today and everyone wants the recipe.

Many have heard of or read Drive; but long before Daniel Pink considered this subject, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan were knee-deep in research into Self-Determination Theory.  Their work suggests four types of motivation:

  • Extrinsic motivation – People take action to gain a reward or avoid punishment (aka: carrot and stick). This is how business was run for decades. Reach indicates that while this may yield short-term results, it will backfire in the long-term.
  • Introjected motivation – External pressures are internalized so that people act out of a sense of guilt. They want to avoid feeling badly about themselves. Or to seek self-worth. In either case, it leaves others feeling controlled and manipulated.
  • Integrated motivation – In this case, otherwise onerous or uninteresting tasks are willingly undertaken because they are seen as serving an important need. For example, many people don’t enjoy exercise, but engage in it because it improves their health and well-being. It’s their choice and they feel good about it.
  • Intrinsic motivation – People take action because it’s inherently interesting or satisfying to do so. Hobbies, leisure-time activities, sports, and family generally provide intrinsic motivation.

So, what does this mean to a typical manager? Because, let’s face it … many work tasks are simply not inherently interesting or satisfying. As a result, intrinsic motivation is frequently out of reach… at least in the workplace. In these cases, the best we can hope for is to activate integrated motivation on the job.

Managers who appreciate this dynamic take deliberate steps everyday to connect the work with what matters most to people.  They:

  • Get to know their employees, what matters to them, and how work fits into their bigger, personal pictures.
  • Create a breadcrumb trail, making overt the connection between doing a job and serving the employee’s personal needs.
  • Help people use their strengths and feel capable and successful.
  • Offer choices (whenever possible and when it makes sense) rather than directives or mandates.
  • Communicate progress so that employees know they’re on the right track and have the motivation to continue on.
  • Recognize results in authentic and meaningful ways that leave others feeling appreciated and valued.

These small actions help employees create their own personal connection to the work by seeing how what they’re doing helps them achieve other goals that have meaning to them. It helps them to internalize their motivation which leads to greater engagement and results.

So, are you motivated to share your thoughts? What tasks that are not intrinsically motivating must you perform?  What’s the connection between these tasks and your own personal needs or goals? How can you connect the two? How can you do this for your employees?


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