Motivation, the driving force behind goal-directed behaviors, has long been a topic of interest to researchers and leaders alike. This is not surprising as motivation is essentially the underlying cause behind human actions.  While researchers aim to understand just why and how different individuals are motivated, employers strive to attract, hire, retain and develop highly motivated individuals. These are the people who display the drive to get the job done efficiently and effectively.

You may be thinking—well, of course organizations want highly motivated individuals. However, while we intuitively know that motivated individuals are a necessary asset in any organization, we often have trouble actually creating an environment where this is the case.  So, how can this be achieved? Well, there are certainly many answers to this burning question—for the sake of brevity (and the sheer impossibility of covering all motivation-related topics), we’ll hone in on one interesting answer.

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivation: What’s the difference anyway?

In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink explains that we might be going about this whole motivation thing all wrong. He suggests that we should pay more attention to distinguishing two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is internal—it is motivation driven by interest or enjoyment in the task itself. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is driven by external rewards and outcomes.

Take a moment to think about how you typically go about motivating others. What is the first thing that comes to mind? Perhaps you thought about money or other external rewards (e.g., incentives, time off, pay-for-performance plans). That was certainly what I used to think. And then, a colleague here at Vantage brought Dan Pink’s ideas to my attention. Intrigued (and continually looking for ways to motivate myself and others), I quickly picked up a copy of the book. You might say that its contents led to a “light bulb moment” for me—quite literally as I’m pretty sure I said “aha” several times as I was reading.

Dan Pink opens the book by introducing a small area of neglected research from the 1940’s (which has been revisited recently). Essentially, the research suggests that motivation may be longer-lasting if it stems from intrinsic, rather than extrinsic, forces. In other words, if we engage in certain behaviors to feel internally satisfied rather than to receive some type of external reward, then we will be more likely to continue engaging in those same behaviors in the future. In fact, if we begin to rely on the receipt of external rewards in exchange for certain behaviors, then our intrinsic motivation can be undermined.

This concept seems especially difficult when applied to the modern world of work where each minute seems to be driven by the dollar. We know that external rewards (i.e., extrinsic motivators) are inherent in the system as employees must be compensated for their work. So, how can leaders shift their employees’ thinking so that their work is also intrinsically motivating and rewarding?

Dan Pink proposes that the answer lies in giving employees the opportunity to experience three things: purpose, mastery, and autonomy.

In other words, employees should feel that their work has a purpose—that it is contributing to the whole in some important way – and important in their terms. They should be given experiences that fuel a sense of mastery, in which they are continually challenged to progress and improve. And finally, they should be given enough autonomy to fulfill the innate need to be self-directed. This trio of experiences serves to instill a sense of accountability in employees that can make the job itself intrinsically motivating and rewarding—effectively making the completion of on-the-job tasks internally satisfying.

Realistically, we acknowledge that there are several challenges to the motivation model Pink proposes. For one, there is a fine line between allowing employees to be autonomous in completing tasks and giving them enough oversight and training so they develop the skills to effectively complete tasks.

Despite the potential challenges, this model just seems to make sense intuitively. 

Let’s discuss:

Is the ability to motivate and engage a critical leadership competency in your organization? If so, how do you assess it?

What is the biggest challenge your organizational leaders face regarding employee motivation?

Interested in hearing more about Dan Pink’s book? Check out the following video for a fantastic summary (chock full of great graphics).