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Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation and the role they play in Employee Engagement

Lots of companies have embraced the importance of employee engagement and made earnest and worthwhile efforts to improve this through their policies and practices. Many have quite rightly tailored their internal comms strategy to maximise the opportunities to motivate their people. So far, so good…

But psychology tells us that there are two very different forms of motivation – intrinsic and extrinsic – and this concept is arguably less well understood by those aiming to boost employee engagement.

Before we investigate the difference between the two, let’s take a quick look at the definitions of engagement and motivation in the context of our people. If engagement is a measure of how strongly employees feel connected to their employer, motivation reflects why these connections exist. Or don’t! The two are clearly interlinked, and both are incredibly important.

And so, to the two types of motivation…

Put simply, intrinsic motivation is the motivation felt as a result of internal or personal drivers. It is wanting to do a good job, to go the extra mile, to put in maximum effort because we feel pride in what we do, we are passionate about it, and we draw satisfaction from the work.

Conversely, extrinsic motivation is the drive to do things because of external influences. These are usually reward or punishment based, such as working extra hard for a financial bonus (reward) or to avoid a dressing-down from a manager (punishment).

The two need to be carefully managed and balanced if our people are to be truly engaged.

You can motivate by fear, and you can motivate by reward. But both those methods are only temporary. The only lasting thing is self-motivation.

- Homer Rice

Whilst there is no denying that extrinsic motivators often yield results, these tend to be shorter-term and are certainly less sustainable – both for employee and employer. Think about it: is a one-off bonus or fear of a rollicking really boosting engagement and benefiting relationships? This carrot-and-stick approach has been the default setting for generations, but, at best, it provides a temporary and short-term boost to efforts. At worst, over time, it can become counter-productive and breed an unhealthy culture where workers expect a reward for every task well done or achievement made. This means that effort is reduced (and resentment rises) when there is no such bonus available. Similarly, working in fear of reprimand or punishment might bolster efforts for a short time, but actual, meaningful levels of engagement levels will be devastated. Anyone who’s worked under those conditions long-term will tell you that efforts quickly shift from the job in hand to looking for a new job!

So, if we know that intrinsic trumps extrinsic, how can we build and nurture the intrinsic? If those motivators are internal or personal, can we have any impact on them at all? Well, the answer, thankfully, is yes.

Here are a few ways that your company’s culture and comms can boost intrinsic motivation:


Put simply, healthy connections between employees (be they peer-to-peer, manager-to-report, or colleague-up) create a work environment where intrinsic motivation thrives naturally. Colleagues who like and respect their co-workers and leaders are more likely to put more in because they feel good about -and enjoy- supporting the team through their own efforts. Cooperation with our colleagues helps to create a sense of community and boosts our sense of belonging.

Internal comms can, and should, facilitate and nurture these kinds of relationships, through the provision of suitable social channels, colleague-focused updates, meetings and events, or people videos.

Recognition and Appreciation

Having our efforts and achievements recognised and appreciated (by those we report to and by our peers) is massive for our intrinsic motivation. Whilst the praise may come from an external source, the endorphins and Oxytocin that our bodies release when we receive that recognition make us feel good, boost our sense of pride, and fuel our internal motivation. Quite simply, we want to earn that recognition again.

The great thing about peer-to-peer recognition is that it gives everyone the opportunity to recognise and thank their colleagues for efforts made or support given, even if those actions didn’t necessarily result in a financial target being hit or an obvious, tangible benefit to the business realised.

Similarly, and particularly for the latest generations to join the workplace, feedback needs to be frequent and prompt. Offer praise when it is due and intrinsic motivation will flow.

A sense of purpose

When we understand how our work fits into the bigger picture and how we are helping our organisation to achieve its goals and wider successes, we are more motivated and more passionate about our contributions, no matter their size. We feel that we matter, and that our work is valued and of value.

Often, this is down to comms again. If our people don’t understand how or why what they do is important, then we need to tell them. If we help them to see their value, their intrinsic motivation will soar.

Provide Challenge and Encourage Problem-Solving

Giving our people proportionate challenge and encouraging problem-solving will inspire them to achieve new skills and lead to personal growth, which are great intrinsic motivators. Providing support and solution instead of answers, and delegating work with appropriate guidance, are two ways to help our people to develop and to grow, raising their self-esteem and boosting their intrinsic motivation.

In short, there may well, at times, be room for both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in your organisation. But overlook the intrinsic ones at your peril. Your people’s engagement, commitment, loyalty, and productivity will all suffer in the long-term. Communication, connection, and collaboration are essential.


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