How to Unlock the Power of Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic Motivation

Good leaders who want to get the best out of their teams are continuously looking for ways to engage and motivate employees. Alas, many good acts like giving a pay rise or offering ample perks and benefits don’t produce the expected effect. The truth is, external rewards may do more harm than good if you fail to tap into the intrinsic motivation of your staff. Let us tell you more about what it is and how to foster intrinsic motivation at work.

Understanding Intrinsic Motivation

The psychology distinguishes between two drives that make people act: extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation occurs when people act expecting a particular external reward or in fear of punishment.

In contrast to this, intrinsic motivation occurs when people act out of their own internal wish to do so not expecting any external rewards. This happens when people truly enjoy what they do and when the activity helps them to satisfy their psychological needs in competence, autonomy, and relatedness.

To understand intrinsic motivation, it is necessary to look at the key factors that increase it:

  • Curiosity. Curiosity makes people want to explore and learn for the sole pleasure of exploration and mastering of new skills.
  • Challenge. If the goal is realistic, yet challenging, people are more inclined to make discretionary efforts to reach it.
  • Control. People tend to act without any external reward if this gives them the ability to make decisions and control what happens to them.
  • Cooperation and competition. When employees feel a sense of belonging, get the chance to help others or are challenged by the competitors, their motivation increases.
  • Recognition. Besides monetary rewards, people need to feel appreciated and to have a sense of meaning, which makes them willing to contribute even more.


Here is how intrinsic motivation works in the working environment:

  • Employees give a first-class consultation to a customer because this makes them feel competent and helpful, not because they want to get a bonus for doing so.
  • Employees coach their colleagues and help them find a solution because this makes them feel like they are part of the group and because they feel that others appreciate this, not because this will help them to get a promotion.
  • Employees keep their workplaces in order because they enjoy a clean space, not because they will be fined for the mess.


As it can be seen from the examples, it is a pleasure to manage intrinsically motivated employees. But there is an economic gain from it too.

The Value of Intrinsically Motivated Employees

While extrinsic factors allow making sure that the necessary work is done, intrinsic factors determine the quality of this work. If people find non-material rewards, satisfaction, and challenge in their work, they are more likely to suggest creative ideas and put in discretionary efforts.

Having a direct impact on employees’ creativity and performance, intrinsic motivation determines the success of the entire organization. Here are some facts to prove it:

  • According to McKinsey Organisational Health Index data, intrinsically motivated employees demonstrate 32% higher commitment and 46% higher job satisfaction.
  • A 2012 study by Cho and Perry shows that intrinsic motivation is three times as powerful as extrinsic motivation when it comes to the level of employee engagement.
  • Research by O’Driscoll and Randall suggests that intrinsic rewards like joy and a sense of personal fulfillment impact retention more than extrinsic rewards.
  • Intrinsic motivation is considered a necessary condition for organizational citizenship behaviors, which predict the effectiveness of the organization at large.

Intrinsic Motivation and External Rewards

You should be very careful when trying to motivate employees through external rewards. The problem is that offering external rewards or setting up punishment policies to stimulate an activity, which is already internally rewarding, can actually kill intrinsic motivation. This phenomenon is called the overjustification effect.

If people perceive the task as overjustified, they feel confused and try to understand what the main reason why they engage in the activity is. If extrinsic rewards are used too often, employees eventually start to lose interest in what they do and a sense of satisfaction with themselves. At the same time, unexpected rewards and rewards given early in a task boost intrinsic motivation. For example, according to the recent study, an early bonus increases interest and persistence, as it is associated with the positive experience with an activity, not the expected outcome.

Best Strategies to Build Intrinsic Motivation

The fact that intrinsic motivation comes from within a person doesn’t mean that you cannot affect it. Actually, management has a decisive impact on whether intrinsic motivation will last or no. Here are the strategies that will help you develop intrinsic motivation in your employees.

1. Refuse from micromanaging

Micromanaging is absolutely hostile to intrinsic motivation. This is because you deny employees the right to control how to perform an action or when to perform it. What is more, they lose the chance to approach the task as a challenge, work out their own solutions and get appreciated for this. Strictly defining who to contact for support, you undermine employees’ satisfaction from the intrinsically rewarding process of getting and offering help.

2. Set the right goals

To be intrinsically motivated, employees should work towards a goal that is challenging yet attainable and has a social or moral value. It is the task of a leader to point to the non-economic value of one’s work to make the person find meaning in it. Making the world a better place is not just a nice phrase. This is something that actually makes us feel good about what we do and, thus, find intrinsic motivation to push beyond the limits.

3. Know your employees’ personalities and interests

Both people and tasks are not created equal: tasks that drive intrinsic motivation in one employee may be daunting and overwhelming for a person with a different personality. Getting a High5Test Team Report will help you assign tasks that match employees’ interests and strengths. Doing so you will satisfy employees’ curiosity and help them to develop their natural strengths, which is closely associated with intrinsic motivation.

4. Develop a culture of growth

It has already been mentioned that people have a psychological need in competency and perform actions without any external stimuli just to prove their own worth to themselves. Help people grow at work and they will have even better images of their own strengths, which they would like to apply in practice. Use the strengths finder test to set the right direction for development and help the employee grow and build confidence.

5. Facilitate team development

Cooperation and a sense of belonging to the social group are among the key factors promoting intrinsic motivation. These factors cannot be found in the environment of dysfunctional teams that lack trust and responsibility for the mutual goal. When you, as a manager, help your team progress through the stages of team development, you create a working environment that nurtures intrinsic motivation.

All in all, it is very important to breed intrinsic motivation in your employees. Much insight about what your employees actually enjoy can be gained through a High5Test for a Team. Allow your employees to enjoy their strengths and competence and they will be willing to give more without any external rewards.

the team strengths report

Gain insights on what really motivates your team by identifying its strengths