January 10, 2020
Which Type of Motivation Works Best - Intrinsic or Extrinsic?
One of the questions I get asked more than any other is which type of motivation is more important - intrinsic or extrinsic? Now before I answer this important question let’s just quickly define what we mean by intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, so that we can better understand the impact and benefits of each of these types of motivation.
Intrinsic motivation refers to behaviour that is driven by internal rewards. In other words, the motivation to engage in a behaviour arises from within the individual because it is naturally satisfying to him / her. For example, that feeling could come from doing something good like helping someone, or from helping to improve the environment. Just knowing that you have helped to benefit others can be a huge motivation.
Extrinsic motivation refers to behaviour that is driven by external rewards such as money, fame, grades, and praise. This type of motivation arises from outside the individual, as opposed to inside. This could be as simple as receiving a bonus for completing a project on time or being selected as employee of the month.
Now that we are clear on the differences between these two different types of motivation, let’s get back to the question, which one of these types is better, which one of them is more important.
To me, the answer to this question depends upon the individual, both in terms of what are your personal values and also it could be impacted by your current life circumstances.
For instance, if you were about to get married or buy a house, a nice bonus could be just the thing that you are looking for and this would be very much appreciated and highly motivational.
At the same time what the research shows, especially where Millennials are concerned, is a strong desire to work in a job that has a higher purpose that just driving the company or creating profits for shareholders.
In my experience, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are different sides of the same coin, and a good leader will work on both of these rather than just focusing on one of them. This can ensure that we look to engage all our team members and get them to buy-in to the project or goal that we are looking to achieve.
There are subtle differences between these two types of motivation, both in terms of the benefits and impacts that they can have on a team, and we need to make sure that we get the balance and sequencing right to achieve maximum benefit.
Where to start?
Personally, I always look to start with intrinsic motivation, why? Because I think that this is actually the more powerful of the two, and you can realize the benefits much earlier and it can really help to get people inspired to participate and start working towards the goal.
This is because you can get that feeling of well-being, sense of purpose and increased self-esteem just from knowing that you are participating in something, something bigger than yourself that will have a lasting impact on others, giving you that sense of achieving something good or worthwhile.
I remember one of the most favourite projects that I worked on. This was back in 2006 when I was a program manager for DHL. I was to lead the IT team in the delivery of an on-time delivery project which would help ensure more customers got their parcels on the committed date.
Now, to be honest, this just felt like any other project, nothing special, pretty mundane actually, but that all changed after one meeting with the Business Program Manager during the kick-off phase.
During the meeting, she asked the question of the project team “does anyone know why this project is important, why we are doing it”?
A lot of hands went up and people shouted out things like ‘to increase profits’, ‘to increase market share’, ‘to improve customer satisfaction’, and ‘to reduce the number of penalties we pay for late delivery’.
After each of these, the business program manager answered ‘no!’
After a few minutes, we had exhausted our collective suggestions and had still not found the answer that the Business Program Manager was looking for.
Then she smiled at us, paused, and said ‘let me tell you why this project is so important’
‘This project is important because…there is no Santa Claus…and it’s our job to make sure that Christmas presents sent by aunts, uncles and grandparents arrive in time for Christmas and not one or two days later. It is our job to make sure that birthday presents arrive on the day of the recipient’s birthday. It is our job to ensure that medication, and a lot of medication is sent by DHL, arrives when the person needs it, not two, or three days later, or even worst gets lost in the post.’
‘That is why this project is important, because we are Santa Claus to all those people’.
You could have heard a pin drop in the room it was so silent. I still remember now, how the hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and how proud I was to be invited to be involved in such a project.
This was the first project I have worked on where people worked evenings and weekends without being asked.
This is the power of intrinsic motivation.
The goal and objective were made important to us, that we felt privileged to be involved and excited to be a part of something that was going to have such a positive impact on others.
Needless to say, this project was finished within budget and ahead of time.
The Value of Intrinsic Motivation
The reason to start with intrinsic motivation is because it gives benefits to the people right from the outset. If your teams can see what they are doing is going to be worthwhile and have a lasting beneficial impact, then it will get them excited to be involved and eager to get started.
Many initiatives fail right at the start, either they don’t get the buy-in or the early progress can be so slow that people lose what little interest they and quit to being 100% committed.
When you can start a project or initiative strongly, it puts you in with a greater chance of completing it successfully.
So Extrinsic Motivation is Not Important?
Whilst I always look to start in Intrinsic motivation, and sometimes this can be all you need to achieve your objectives, that doesn’t mean we should ignore extrinsic motivation.
Whilst it’s great to serve others and look to help improve the world, it’s also good to be able to get something out of it for ourselves. And when we can show that dual benefit, we end up creating a win-win scenario that can help power our teams through the difficult times on a project or initiative which invariably can happen.
Also, when you do great work but it is never recognized or appreciated, whilst that can feel quite noble, after a while it does start to wear a little thin. We all like to feel respected and receive recognition for a job well done, that too is great for our self-esteem.
I am also a big fan of rewards , especially when the company profits from the hard work. If everyone benefits except for the people that are involved in delivering the result, pretty soon they will become frustrated, demotivated and disengaged.
What gets recognized gets repeated, and if we fail to reward and recognize then this can stop the results from being repeated/
Getting the Balance Right
Keeping a team highly motivated and consistently performing comes from having the right balance and combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.
You start by linking the goals to a higher purpose, it can’t just be about revenue and profits. Let your teams know why it’s important, and if you can link that to something that’s important to them, then you are much more likely to get them engaged and excited about being a part of it. And if you can tie any benefits to them, this too can help drive their motivation.
For example, at one company, we were looking to drive performance improvements within our department. Improvements that would actually lead to bigger investments in the department, and which would then bigger and better opportunities for them to become involved in, which would help their career development and growth.
Once you have the Intrinsic aspect covered, now it is time to look at the extrinsic side of the coin.
Look to build in quick wins, where you can provide positive feedback and recognition which will help feed into their motivation and help to build upon and maintain the motivation that has already been created.
If there is a big enough benefit, make sure that your teams know what their reward will be for gaining this benefit, because once achieved-- this will be the cherry on the top which will keep your teams engaged, motivated and excited to be involved in upcoming initiatives.
Getting a team motivated can be hard, keeping a team motivated is much easier, and it’s reward and recognition that really pays off big here. We all want that little bit of fame, to be able to take the credit for a job well done and if we have the right intrinsic motivation, then we can get the double return from having a good job, well done.
In summary, both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are important in creating high performing teams. Either of them alone can help motivate our teams, but when we can leverage the power of them collectively this is where the magic happens and it can lead to some amazing results.
Gordon works with organizations that want to equip their leaders with the tools to drive engagement, performance and profits. He is one of world's top 30 leadership speakers and trainers.
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