Intrinsic Motivation and Rewards In The Workplace

December 5, 2018
5 min
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Let’s start by addressing the pervasive mindset of most leaders, “we are here to make money” and “maximize shareholder wealth”.  After logging in over 2k interviews between my column and book, for me, the jury is out. Once we penetrate fluffy words on the walls or the website, and we don’t need to dig too deep, we discover simple truth.  

Extrinsic motivation, typically via total compensation, is viewed as the main form of value exchange between organizations. Yes, most leaders take a quick pause to list benefits or perks (pool tables and happy hours) and mention growth, viewed strictly as career growth. In fact, every time we bring up “personal growth”, leaders jump in with “yes, yes, we have annual performance reviews and we discuss individual career path.”

What about intrinsic motivation? Studied since the 1970’s (wow, only a bit older than me), intrinsic motivation is something we do for its own sake – we don’t worry about what the reward will be because it is its own reward. Like having a nice conversation with a friend – we don’t need to be incentivized because we genuinely enjoy the activity itself.

Let’s examine the landscape of intrinsic motivation as it exists today in the workplace.

It’s the missing link

Today, management is approached from almost every angle… almost. Managers are more open today to new and innovative techniques than they ever were, but they’re still missing that crucial element: intrinsic motivation. It’s what’s left to bridge the gap from smart management of things to the inspirational leadership of people. When we bring them together there’s no telling what’s possible.

Autonomy, mastery, and purpose

While strategies based around intrinsic motivation are still conspicuously absent from most workplaces, people are beginning to take notice. At 21 million views, Dan Pink’s Ted Talk, The puzzle of motivation, has taken the world by storm.

We are fascinated with what drives people to act, and with Pink’s outline of motivation (autonomy, mastery, and purpose) we have a tool to understand and take action on what motivates us. We as leaders now know that we have to address each of these elements if we want to tap into our worker’s deepest motivations.  

We need to rethink rewards

Let’s consider the existing strategies around motivation and how they would benefit from a dose of intrinsic motivation. Because, while extrinsic rewards like bonuses and extra time are great, we don’t like to think of ourselves as just working for the reward.

This doesn’t mean get rid of monetary incentives, but rather that leaders should build them into a system of personal growth that extends beyond money. When people feel that they are growing personally along with their salary you are much more likely to have a truly motivated worker.  

Let’s not forget Maslow

While intrinsic motivation is still not fully harnessed in the workplace it has had a long history that’s waiting to be fulfilled. This is the case with one of the first psychologists to bring psychological principles into management: Abraham Maslow. To this day, his ideas remain highly influential, however Maslow was ahead of his time and, unfortunately, not every element of his thought has been fully explored. Most of his famous pyramid is taken into account in management strategy except for the essential peak: self-actualization. An element that’s at the center of all intrinsic motivation.

Underappreciation is killing productivity

Recognition is among the easiest intrinsic motivators to implement, and yet it’s still underused – despite the major benefits it could provide. A recent study, conducted by, shows that people work harder when they feel appreciated. The study found that 80% of the workforce feels underappreciated and would increase their effort if they received more recognition for the hard work they put in.

The takeaway

Let’s review. Human sciences point to intrinsic motivation as “natural”. Humans perform better when intrinsic motivation is infused in the workplace. Leaders themselves understand the desire for intrinsic motivation. So, why are we collectively lagging the common knowledge?

Now, in defense of the leaders responsible for the state of workplace. Change is very hard. It is not a matter of reading a book or watching a convincing talk. Leaders are responsible for organizational performance, they must connect initiatives directly or indirectly to organizational performance. Early adopters will benefit from a differentiator that will impact employee acquisition, employee retention and employee performance.  

As the first step, raise the question, “what type of motivation do we believe aligns best to our culture?”

John Paul

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