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Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation: Everything you Want to Know

Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation: what are they? Which is best? So many question! We have the answers right here for you!

People Strategy
Employee Experience

Leen Sawalha

VP Product & Growth

Thursday, April 30, 2015


Motivation – arguably one of the most discussed subject when it comes to employee performance and business success. We all know what motivation is, but don’t you think such an important topic demands that we dig a little deeper?

What is intrinsic motivation? Is it better or worse than extrinsic motivation? Is it really important to know these terms, anyway? The answer to the last question is: absolutely! Why? We’ll get to that. But first, let’s start with the basics.

Motivation: a quick definition

The great thing about “motivation” is that we all know what it is, but we can’t exactly give a nice and complete definition of it. And that definition can change slightly depending on the situation. For example, the definition on BusinessDictionary.com is a little different from that on Wikipedia or from one you would find in a psychology journal. But in its simplest form, motivation is the reason we do the things we do, regardless of what that thing is.

What is intrinsic motivation?

A person is said to be intrinsically motivated when the reason for him to do something stems from the direct relationship between him and the task. In other words, he is said to be intrinsically motivated when he does something for the sake of doing it, and not for some other external factor or reason.

Let’s make it a little clearer with an example:

Hobbies are very often intrinsically motivated actions. Do you enjoy reading? Why do you do it? Is it because you just like relaxing with a book, or is it because it’s going to help you get that bonus that’s coming up at the end of the month?

Think about that friend of yours who plays hockey as a hobby. Why do you think he does it? Do you really think he’s doing it to get into a league and become a famous hockey player, or because he genuinely has a good time participating in the sport?

Let’s face it, becoming a professional hockey does sound quite exciting, but if you’re anything like the rest of us – if you read because you enjoy reading, and play hockey because you enjoy playing hockey – that means you’re doing an action for the sake of doing it, and not for anything else – and that is intrinsic motivation.

What is extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation is easier to understand because – I think – it’s a lot more common than intrinsic motivation. It also occurs often enough that we’ve become used to it!

Basically, you are extrinsically motivated if the reason why you’re doing a task, action, or behavior, stems from the external environment – or the environment that is external to the task you’re doing. If the factor that is driving you to carry out a behavior is not related to the task/behavior itself, then you are extrinsically motivated.

Here are some of the easiest, most applicable and relatable examples anyone can ever give, ever!

During school, why did you study so hard? If your answer is to get good grades or find a good job, then you were extrinsically motivated. Why do you have a job and work now? If it’s to make money, invest, support your family, or save, then you are extrinsically motivated. What about working overtime? Are you doing it to get that promotion? If you are, then you, my friend, are extrinsically motivated to do these actions.

So, when you do something for something else, your motivation is extrinsic. And that is all!

Intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation: which is best?

It is easy to see why a type of motivation that stems from within an individual is “better” than one that is based on external factors. Wouldn’t it be great if your employees were motivated simply because they enjoy doing their job? Because they are inherently interested in all the tasks they do, and are completely satisfied just from achieving them?

Yeah, right!

That was a nice thought, but let’s get back to reality. And the reality is that it is virtually impossible to have an employee be completely intrinsically motivated. Don’t worry, though; that’s not necessarily a bad thing!

The truth is that most people are motivated by a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic factors, and that’s okay. The trick is to know what motivates them, and use that to your advantage as a manager.

Identifying motivating factors

The reason we love talking about motivation so much is because we know how important it is for performance. After all, the more motivated you are, the better you perform, right?

Well, yes and no.

While motivation is a big part of the equation, there are still other factors that affect employee performance.

Personality, cognitive ability, and emotional intelligence, are some of the other major factors. But the great thing is that all of these are related, so you won’t need to focus on just one factor, but on the person as a whole.

People are different – that’s not news. People have different motivating factors – and that’s not news either. They also have different personalities, cognitive abilities, and degrees of emotional intelligence.

So what’s the solution?

Get to know your employees!

Give them psychometric assessments, examine their motivating factors, understand their strengths, evaluate their innate traits, and introduce yourself to a side of them you never knew existed.

Then use that information to reach grounds you never knew could be reached with something so simple. This new level of understanding will also give you a better idea about what could be the best motivators for your employees, whether they be intrinsic, extrinsic or, most likely, a combination of both.

It may be time to put the “intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation” debate to rest, and try focusing on the individual as a whole instead of one factor that makes them who they are. Even if you consider motivation to be a big chunk of the puzzle, it is not the only piece, and having the complete picture may be the answer to improving your employees’ overall performance.

It’s worth giving it a shot, don’t you think?

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