We spend a lot of time not thinking about motivation, but it’s one of the most important aspects of employee engagement

What the heck are we even doing here? 

That’s the underlying question. And if you don’t have a good answer for it, then you can be pretty sure that your employees don’t either—or worse yet, their reasoning has nothing to do with making your company a better place to work. 

Whether we want to admit it or not, we all have motivations within our jobs. And for your employees, if you’re not taking the time to cultivate those motivations, it may be the motivation to get out of the job they’re currently in. 

Where Does Motivation Come From?

Generally speaking, motivation can come from anywhere—but you already knew that.  What you may not have known is that motivation commonly gets broken into two larger categories: intrinsic and extrinsic. And based on how often we all use those words, there’s surely no need for further explanation.  But we’ll give you one anyway. 

Intrinsic Motivation: What Is It?

Contemporary educational psychologists Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci define intrinsic motivation as doing “an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than for some separable consequence.” In other words, you do something because you simply enjoy doing it. This may sound like an oversimplification (and it totally is), but what we can gather from that is more than just “good things are good.” Instead, what can learn is that intrinsically motivated employees are those that are curious, they enjoy learning, and they like to find creative solutions. .

For employees that display those traits, be sure to cultivate that intrinsic motivation in their work: empower them to be curious and creative as much as their job allows. 

Extrinsic Motivation: The Good And Bad One

As Ryan and Deci go on to point out, while intrinsic motivation is a nice idea and all, it’s not common among our everyday activities as humans. We’re not all intrinsically motivated to pay our bills. It’s just something we have to do.  And that’s why extrinsic motivation is an extremely important element in motivating our employees—but why it also certainly has its pitfalls.  Extrinsic motivation, as they put it, has everything to do with “whenever an activity is done in order to attain some separable outcome.” 

And that’s where things get complicated. Just because we’re doing an action to attain an outcome doesn’t mean everyone’s doing it for the same outcome, and that makes it a lot harder to determine why everyone’s doing it. 

Let’s take drinking a glass of water for example: for one person, they’re doing it so that they don’t feel thirsty anymore. For another person, they’re doing it because their mother told them they can’t leave the dinner table until they do so. For a third, they’re doing it because their crush told them hydration is a very attractive quality.  Okay, maybe that’s not something anyone’s ever said, but you get the point. 

Making Motivation Work For You And Your Team

So now that we’re clear on definitions, we want to give you concrete examples of how both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations can be extremely helpful for your team—and how they can become a detriment.  Just remember this: at the end of the day, motivating your team is about understanding both the roles of your employees within the office, and their specific needs as individuals. It comes down to investing your time and energy into open channels of communication, coupled with a desire to see them thrive.  Without that, all of this becomes ingenuine, and it can’t drive real results. 

Unhealthy Intrinsic Motivation: An Undefined Role

As we mentioned above, the beauty of intrinsically motivated employees can be that they simply enjoy the work—they’re eager to hone a skill and solve problems with creativity.  But huge problems arise here when an employee doesn’t have their role clearly defined. Yes, they’ll continue to explore new ways of solving problems, but they’ll also likely spend time on problems that have nothing to do with the job you need them to do.  Soon, they’ll become disengaged with the job, because they won’t feel like their efforts are being appreciated—and you’ll be frustrated with them for not doing the tasks they need to.

Healthy Intrinsic Motivation: Thriving With KPIs

Instead, you can use clearly defined KPIs to create boundaries within which your employee can thrive.  When an employee know what it takes to be successful in their role, they can use that creative energy to solve the right problems in ways you may have never imagined—which helps lift everyone around them. 

Unhealthy Extrinsic Motivation: Fear of Failure

Without getting too preachy here, studies tell us over and over that fear is not a good motivator if you want your employees to truly thrive in their work. 

When employees’ main drive at work is the fear of failure—which can often be a default mode for managers (“If we don’t hit these numbers we’re sunk!”)—they stop being willing to take risks, and in the process you can even end up killing the curious and creative parts of their work. 

Allow your employees to fail, which will in turn help them to learn and grow from their mistakes. 

Healthy Extrinsic Motivation: Scoring Big By Setting Goals

In the end, what helps the extrinsically motivate an employee isn’t the fear of unemployment around the corner, but rather looking to the horizon of a new goal. 

Both in the short- and long-term, goal-setting helps employees to see where they’re headed, and actually identify an extrinsic relationship in their work. For example, If I can hit these numbers, I’ll earn a bonus that can help me pay for that vacation I’ve been dreaming of.

When we have ways to orient our work to good external goals in our life in and outside of work, we gain a holistic motivation for great performance—and what could be better than that!