intrinsic motivation

All about intrinsic motivation (+ how to cultivate it on your team)

Reading time: about 6 min

Topics:

  • Teamwork and collaboration

When you think of the team members who are your organization’s highest performers, you’ll likely find they have something in common: They are all driven. Employees who excel are self-motivated and, as such, go above and beyond in their roles. 

This drive is intrinsic motivation. Keep reading to learn more about intrinsic motivation, why it matters, and how to foster it in the workplace. 

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is the drive we feel to do something simply because we want to, like if we find the activity fun, meaningful, or engaging. We all are intrinsically motivated to do some things, like eat delicious food, spend time with loved ones, and work on our favorite hobbies.

Researchers first looked at intrinsic motivation related to physical needs, like hunger and thirst. However, it also applies to psychological needs. According to self-determination theory, intrinsic motivation happens when the task in front of us connects to one of our core psychological needs, like human connection, autonomy, and competence. 

Essentially, intrinsic motivation gives us the drive to not only meet our survival needs but to thrive.

Intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation refers to external factors that influence our behavior, either positively or negatively. These are the rewards and punishments we often use to motivate others, like raises and write-ups in the workplace. 

Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation have a complex relationship. Intrinsic and extrinsic factors motivate all of us, often simultaneously. For example, most adults likely don’t particularly enjoy brushing their teeth every day, but they do it anyway without anyone making them. Some people may be motivated to avoid bad breath or cavities, an extrinsic influence. In contrast, others may feel that it’s important to them personally to be someone who takes care of themselves, which is more of an intrinsic motivator. 

Many people will brush for both reasons. Both kinds of motivation are valid, and the result—clean teeth—is worth it, regardless of which influence got you there.

However, according to motivation crowding theory, extrinsic incentives sometimes reduce intrinsic motivation to complete a task. For example, if you love playing video games, you may be thrilled to get a job reviewing them—until you have to play them to get your paycheck, whether you want to play right now or not. 

Research on this phenomenon is mixed, though. Some studies assert that the two types of motivation are positively correlated, not negatively, and extrinsic rewards can even boost intrinsic motivation. 

Why nurture intrinsic motivation?

Most of the tools that managers use to motivate their employees are extrinsic motivators: Incentives, money, praise, competition, and discipline. These are all things within the organization’s control, and they can help employees do their work effectively. 

Intrinsic motivation is more complex. Because it has to originate within the employee, managers can’t force it—all you can do is allow it to emerge. 

If extrinsic motivation works, why do managers need to worry about intrinsic motivation? While both types of motivation are effective, they do tend to lead to different outcomes: Extrinsic motivation is a better predictor of the quantity of performance (i.e., you do more of the task), while intrinsic motivation is a better predictor of the quality of performance. If you want your employees to not only do their work but do it well, intrinsic motivation is vital.

Additionally, intrinsic motivation protects against burnout. When employees feel engaged with their work, as opposed to doing it because they feel forced to, they’re happier and more likely to stay. Intrinsically motivated employees are likelier to improve their jobs, contribute to the team, and stay with your organization.

How to boost intrinsic motivation in the workplace

Given the right conditions, you can encourage intrinsic motivation in your employees. For intrinsic motivation to thrive, you need to tap into your employees’ needs for:

  • Autonomy, or a sense of control over what they do
  • Competence, or a sense that the challenge ahead of the employee is achievable (but also not so easy that it’s boring)
  • Relatedness, or feeling connected with others and a sense of belonging

While your workplace cannot and should not try to be the end-all, be-all for your employees’ psychological needs, you can still foster a healthy workplace that aligns with these needs. Take a look at the following tips for ideas to implement.

Give your team more autonomy

Can you allow employees to decide how to finish their work whenever possible? If you let your team members decide how to achieve the result you need, they may feel more engaged in finding great solutions.

Delegate more

As you give team members more autonomy, you can also give them more authority. While you’ll need to strike the right balance of oversight, you can provide employees with enough power to own their roles fully, and taking on more responsibility will challenge them. Done well, delegation leads to team members who care about their work and how well they do it.

Help people see the big picture

If an employee doesn’t see the value in the work they produce, they’re not likely to want to do it. You can avoid this by ensuring each team knows how they fit into the organization, how their work helps the organization achieve its goals—and what that effect has on others. 

For example, if a team’s work helps customers solve a specific problem, tell them that! They’ll feel more pride in the work and be more likely to find it meaningful in the future.

Look for ways to challenge employees

Just about every role includes its share of repetitive work. As employees do the task over and over, they get good at it, which makes it less challenging and more boring. 

Try offering an extrinsic reward to draw out intrinsic motivation. In other words, challenge your team to do the task better or faster and offer an incentive to get them started. While the extrinsic motivator might draw them in, they’ll still find their interest piqued and may even enjoy themselves as they work.

Encourage collaboration

Generally, when people ask us for help, it makes us feel competent and more connected to those around us. When one of your team members struggles with something, direct them to someone who shines in that area and let that person get a boost from helping out. 

You can also encourage collaboration by fostering good relationships between team members. Give your team time to chat during meetings, consider what team-building exercises might work for your organization, and let employees help one another.

Look for things that impede intrinsic motivation

Sometimes, other factors get in the way of intrinsic motivation. For example, if your employees are working too many hours and don’t have enough time away from work to recharge, you can’t expect them to feel engaged with their work. They simply have to meet their other needs first. 

While your employees’ lives outside work are their business, you can control the work environment. Set healthy policies for work-life balance and compensation that allow people to meet their needs, and they’ll be more likely to bring their interest and curiosity to their work. 

Empower your team

You can’t force intrinsic motivation, but you can give your team what they need to let it emerge. Try these tips coupled with the extrinsic motivation tools you already have, and you’ll be more likely to have engaged employees who bring curiosity, passion, and dedication to their jobs.

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About Lucidspark

Lucidspark, a cloud-based virtual whiteboard, is a core component of Lucid Software's Visual Collaboration Suite. This cutting-edge digital canvas brings teams together to brainstorm, collaborate, and consolidate collective thinking into actionable next steps—all in real time. Lucid is proud to serve top businesses around the world, including customers such as Google, GE, and NBC Universal, and 99% of the Fortune 500. Lucid partners with industry leaders, including Google, Atlassian, and Microsoft. Since its founding, Lucid has received numerous awards for its products, business, and workplace culture. For more information, visit lucidspark.com.

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