How can I motivate my people?” A better question is, “How can I create an environment that enables people to motivate themselves?” What’s the difference between these two questions? The first one gives the impression that we always understand what will motivate others. From my parenting experience and over 20 years in leadership, I can be sure of one thing—individuals are motivated differently. The usual motivators are threats, raises, and praises. These are examples of external or extrinsic motivation—incentives that come from outside of the individual, that are separate from the task at hand. The second question reflects the fact that the best motivation is what comes from inside each person, or intrinsic motivation—the innate desire to reach a goal. Let’s look at both forms of motivation.

Extrinsic Motivation

Monetary and material rewards such as raises, bonuses, electronic gadgets, praise and letters of commendation, and even threats of punishment or negative outcomes are examples of extrinsic motivators that have been shown to work – for a short while. The motivation from these rewards or escape from negative consequences tends to buy compliance for a short time rather than commitment over time. This is because the benefits to the individual don’t come from the nature of the work itself.

Intrinsic Motivation & Its Key Elements

Intrinsic motivation, doing work for its own sake, is a more sustained form of motivation. Work is intrinsically motivating when it is interesting or personally challenging and taps into your strengths, skills and interests. When you are truly motivated in these ways, time passes quickly and you get lost in the pure joy of the task—you are in flow. Providing intrinsic motivation at work leads to greater job satisfaction, more commitment, higher levels of engagement and even better, increased physical and mental health. One of the most powerful intrinsic motivators is autonomy, the ability to act from a place of your own choice. Autonomy is a natural drive, like learning to walk. When a natural drive is surpressed, it decreases motivation. Accordingly, good leaders create opportunities for employees to experience three key elements of intrinsic motivation: choice, control and competence within their jobs. If a leader wants to motivate someone to go beyond “meets expectations” and reach heights that the employee has not imagined, that leader needs to balance the necessary drudgery and externally controlled aspects, like deadlines and budgets, with some autonomous aspects that give the associate choice, a degree of control and opportunities to feel competence. How do leaders know what those choices are? Ask. Invite input.

Motivation Building Blocks

Here are four ways you, as a leader, can increase intrinsic motivation by building in choice, control and competence:
  1. Involve associates in brainstorming early in the idea stage.
  2. Help them discover something that they find exciting or challenging about the project by incorporating their strengths and skills. You might have to help an associate re-craft their job to better accommodate their strengths and skills.
  3. Clarify goals and parameters and then turn over the means of accomplishing the goals to the associate.
  4. Create landmarks together so that the associate feels a sense of accomplishment, success, and competence along the way.

Positive Feedback

There is also a role for external rewards in combination with intrinsic motivators. One type of extrinsic reward is postive feedback from others. Based on extensive analysis of hundreds of studies on external rewards, renowned motivation researcher Edward Deci and colleagues found that positive feedback is another powerful motivator–provided it is specific, given within a conversation (rather than on the fly), and based on describing and uncovering the behavior that produced the success. This type of focused positive attention from a boss or leader encourages a sense of competence and learning, helping the employee to see how his/her efforts contributed to successful outcomes.


In summary, a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic rewards works best to motivate all types of individuals. Extrinsic motivators are easier to initiate and serve a short-term purpose. Intrinsic rewards require supportive leaders to create the environments that foster choice and control, give people opportunities for creativity, success, and for developing feelings of competence. People want work that gives them opportunities to exercise their strengths, passions and skills. The vitality and business outcomes that come from your associates being energized and caring about work can be priceless, and profitable as well.
Berg, J., Dutton, J. & Wrzesniewski, A. (2008). Job Crafting Exercise. Deci, E.L. & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books. Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development and health. Canadian Psychology, 49 (3), 182-185. (For personal use). Deci. E. L.& Ryan, R. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being, American Psychologist. (For personal use). Gagné, M. & Deci, E. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 331-362. (For personal use). Patall, E.A., Cooper, H., Robinsons, J. C. (2008). The Effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: A meta-analysis of research outcomes. Psychological Bulletin. 134 (2), 270-300. Thomas, K. W. (2002). Intrinsic Motivation at Work: Building Energy and Commitment. San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. A wide array of publications on Self-Determination Theory]]>