Encouraging Intrinsic Motivation: Is Your Organization Getting It Wrong?

In any organization, success comes down to the people. This is as cliched as it’s true.

Yet people also depend on good leadership. Your performance on the job can be largely contingent on how effectively your manager defines tasks and responsibilities, giving a platform for you to excel.

Some leaders seem to possess a unique gift for inspiring their workers to do more. But no company wants its success to be tied to any individual. Even leadership positions are subject to flux.

Above all, organizations want systems for motivation and recognition. A good system works regardless of the identities of those in charge or those beneath them in the hierarchy. It has the right ideas for rewarding employees, giving everybody a clear path to succeed and fulfill their potential while serving the collective cause.

How do you design that kind of system?

Aiming for intrinsic motivation


Psychology makes a distinction between two kinds of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.

When a person is intrinsically motivated to do something, they are engaging in that activity out of self-interest. There’s something about it that sparks curiosity, even to the point of seeking out challenges, exploring and exercising their capabilities, and ultimately learning from the experience.

By contrast, extrinsic motivation is driven by some form of tangible incentive. It might be compensation, in the form of perks and privileges, or even promotion. Sometimes, punishments and penalties are used in this manner.

It’s the nature of extrinsic motivation to be fickle. It can be effective, but it also has diminishing returns. Sometimes, it can even undermine the strength of a person’s intrinsic motivation.

This can be understood through the lens of Herzberg’s Two-Factor Theory of Motivation.

Under this model, workplace satisfaction and dissatisfaction are considered separate attributes. Some factors are job motivators: they move the needle towards satisfaction, and in their absence, we experience no satisfaction. Others are hygiene factors, helping to avoid dissatisfaction when present, creating it when absent.

Extrinsic motivation addresses the hygiene side of the equation. It can help motivate people, but only up to a point. Beyond that, you need to build upon the intrinsic factors to really drive success.

Seeking challenges


How do you encourage people to discover what motivates them intrinsically and act along those lines?

Even if you’re not familiar with the psychology involved, a few sensible actions should come to mind. People want their work to mean more than a source of income, so ensure that incentives are tied to intangibles.

That could mean creating opportunities to learn further, get a taste of higher-level tasks, or experience meaningful interactions with the community your organization serves.

But leaders should always be careful not to make broad assumptions. There’s no substitute for getting to know people personally, and even then, you might not grasp what truly drives someone.

We’re often guilty of not knowing ourselves well enough or being fully honest about what we truly want. How much more difficult can it be for a manager to figure out those things based on brief interactions in the workplace?

Intrinsic motivation is still a nascent field of study, but researchers have found one thing we have in common regardless of personality: a desire for optimal challenge. Address that, and you can motivate anyone, even without fully understanding their needs or desires.

Applying proper gamification

team working at the office

This explains the rising popularity of gamification in the workplace: it’s an approach with the potential to tie everything together. Effective game design gives players the right level of challenge.

This is why good video games are notorious for engaging our attention. We make an effort to play despite a lack of tangible incentives. Stimulated curiosity and the desire to do well and explore the game show that our intrinsic motivation is being harnessed effectively.

But even as organizations seek to gamify their incentives, many manage to get it wrong. They implement systems that either over-emphasize extrinsic factors or ignore them entirely.

Recall the need for balance in games. Some people are ready to dive headfirst, but others need to be nudged and prodded in the right direction. In such circumstances, extrinsic motivation can move the needle for people who are uncertain of their innermost desires or hesitant to engage in their jobs.

If you’re going to use gamification, make sure to mix it up. Align your system of incentives with the known intrinsic motivators of your people. And make sure you include sufficient extrinsic motivation to address hygiene factors and provide guidance and reinforcement for those who are still learning about themselves.

Do this, and you can create a workplace environment with the right level of challenge and ambiguity to encourage people to explore and engage with their jobs.

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