A motivated team is crucial for a functional workplace and this largely comes down to the management of that team with knowledge of what motivates them. A good leader is a good motivator.

When it comes to motivation, experienced leaders and trainers often talk about intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. Now, you may remember this briefly from that one psychology subject you took at college but have totally forgotten about since!

Now more than ever, it’s important for leaders and managers to have a firm understanding of motivation types, and how to apply them effectively.

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is when our behavior is guided by internal rewards.

People who are intrinsically motivated exhibit behaviors as it comes naturally to them. It essentially satisfies them to act this way, as external rewards like medals or bonuses are unimportant.

People who are able to enjoy an activity or interaction will look beyond tangible gains or benefits. They are more likely to enjoy something for the opportunity to have learned or experienced something new.

Personal growth may be more important to the intrinsically motivated, as a result of being able to see beyond material gain. Intrinsic motivation is a mental tool that comes with maturity and appears far more positive than having to constantly seek rewards.

If we look at specific examples of what intrinsic motivation looks like, or feel like, chances are we engage with it more than we realize. An intrinsic motivation would involve doing something without wanting something in return, because the “return” would be feelings of positivity, or growth.

Helping someone out financially in a discreet fashion and then not seeking reimbursement or public praise is an example of intrinsic motivation. You give to someone because the reward comes with the knowledge you gave and you wanted to, not because you felt obligated.

Many people argue there are professions that appear, in general, to be more suited to intrinsically motivated individuals. Jobs that are centered on service are often seen in a more positive light because of the amount of high intrinsic motivation people have in those professions.

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation refers to a set of behaviors focused on seeking external rewards.

Rewards in this instance can be tangible, like financial gains (money and possessions) or a higher standing (school or college grades for example). But they can also be intangible, such as receiving praise or fame.

This is noticeably different from intrinsic motivation, which as previously discussed comes more from within. Due to these material rewards often dominating thinking, people who tend to be more extrinsically motivated will work in jobs they do not enjoy, because there is financial gain at the end of the day.

Psychologists argue that extrinsic motivation is quite often the dominant motivation when we are younger, but diminishes with maturity. However, despite how much we might try to do something for intrinsic benefits, there is no real escape from extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation involves operant conditioning, which is when we are conditioned to behave or think in a certain way because we know there’s a reward or consequence waiting as a result.

If we were to extend this idea beyond humans and look at a great example from the animal kingdom, look at how we train dogs.

We reward good behavior they display, or the command they respond to with a treat. When the dog, over time, knows that a treat will reward their good behavior (or that their owner will be pleased), their behavior is conditioned.

What is important to understand though, is that when it comes to extrinsic motivations, not all of them are negative, or signs of immaturity.

Take weight loss for example. This is a clear example of an extrinsically motivated outcome, but has obvious benefits beyond simply looking good or seeking praise.

In this instance, we could argue weight loss or other healthy lifestyle changes straddle the line between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Other motivation theories to consider

The debate between intrinsic vs extrinsic motivations is of course not the only one when it comes to motivation. There are others out there, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Herzberg’s Two-Factor Model being two prominent theories to consider.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is important to understand for leaders in business especially. In his five tiered pyramid Abraham Maslow argues that once the “base needs” of an individual are covered (psychological and safety needs) only then can upper tier needs be met (social, esteem and self-actualization needs in that order). Maslow argues that to truly motivate an individual and get them to fulfill their potential their needs must be met gradually and in terms of priority.

Herzberg’s Two-Factor Model argues that certain features of a workplace determine job satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Herzberg’s theory has much in common with Maslow’s but the difference of lies in what Maslow calls Motivators (more intrinsically aligned feelings derived from being in the workplace) and “Hygiene factors” (extrinsic motivators like salary, job security, benefits, vacations, health insurance etc.)

Put simply, when the two factors are positive or high, then the workplace is closest to “ideal”.

Choosing intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation

What bucket is your team in when it comes to motivation?

Are they happy and willing to work because they enjoy the work they do? Are they fulfilled or better yet, do they talk about the rewarding nature of their job?

Or do they appear to be through the motions daily? Is a steady paycheck all that’s keeping them there?

Knowing how to motivate a team takes patience, skill and most importantly research.

‘Upskilling’ your leadership skills when it comes to the topic of motivation, especially knowing the difference between intrinsic vs extrinsic is important, so everyone can flourish.

Your team evolves, and so should you.