Intrinsic Motivation: How to Harness it in the Workplace

Intrinsic Motivation: How to Harness it in the Workplace

4 mins readComment
Syed Aquib Ur
Syed Aquib Ur Rahman
Assistant Manager
Updated on Mar 20, 2024 16:08 IST

As social beings, we have different motivations that drive us to act, respond, or behave differently in specific environments. In psychology, the widely cited empirical theories of motivation explore the multifaceted nature of this drive, shedding light on how it affects one’s learning and working in the quest to achieve something. Let's find out about intrinsic motivation. 

Intrinsic motivation

Motivation is not the same for everyone. Certainly not in the workplace! 

Some may be motivated by rewards, such as a salary hike or promotion. These are external motivators. Others may be passionate about taking on more work autonomously and encouraging others, as their internal motivations drive them. 

Among motivation theories developed between the 1950s and 1980s, the Self Determination Theory (SDT) from the 1980s functionally differentiates intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Today’s topic is intrinsic motivation. It is an important element of workplace performance for employees and business leaders. It is a far more powerful driver than extrinsic motivation,  considering it has been proven that an employee being happy does not guarantee performance. 

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation refers to a type of motivation when the individual is not told to or manipulated into doing something. It is when they act voluntarily (on their own) because it fulfils them.

Acting as an internal reward as one simply enjoys or is curious, intrinsic motivation is an acutely personal need that reflects the achievement of self-growth.

Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci mention the importance of intrinsic motivation in this way. 

This natural motivational tendency is a critical element in cognitive, social, and physical development because it is through acting on one’s inherent interests that one grows in knowledge and skills.” 

3 Psychological Needs for Intrinsic Motivation to Work

In their article, The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior (2000), Deci and Ryan mention three types of psychological needs. 

Essential to intrinsic motivation, these needs are Competence, Autonomy, and Relatedness. They are formed within social contexts. 

1. Competence

Competence is a fairly important need as it helps one feel effective in what they do in an interactive environment. It signals good mental health that bases itself on the environment. The outcomes are positive and help with overall well-being.

2. Autonomy

A big part of intrinsic motivation of anyone is the autonomy they feel when performing something. 

Autonomy is not just about being free to make decisions. It is also about the feeling that external forces do not dictate the inner self. 

When the need for autonomy is satisfied, one exudes healthier behaviours in the environment in which they interact. 

3. Relatedness

The need for relatedness is fairly important in the context of social connections. Much like the belongingness aspect concerning Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This is a universal need that bases itself on different types of social contexts. Individuals can contribute to better positive outcomes when the environment is supportive or facilitates building a positive relationship. 

Why Business Leaders Should Tap in the Employees’ Intrinsic Motivation

When comparing with Maslow’s theory, the outcome of leveraging intrinsic motivation can be equated to self-actualisation, which is at the zenith of the pyramid. This goes beyond one’s need for belongingness, identity, and esteem.

The need for self- growth, fulfilment, or the journey to actualisation could be among the many reasons intrinsic motivation remains a long-lasting key to someone being good at what they do. 

But, when this aspect comes to an employee, the more intrinsically motivated they are, the better they get at their work performance. Incentivising barely helps. 

In fact, research collated from the last five decades by Cerasoli et al., shows that external rewards undermine internal drive. These studies have been done across different spheres of life - education, physical activities, and work.
These researchers also found that the type of incentive influences the impact of intrinsic motivation on performance. When incentives are directly tied to performance, intrinsic motivation becomes less important. But, intrinsic motivation becomes more important when incentives are indirectly tied to performance.

One could also posit that organisations that traditionally follow the pay-more-to-work-more framework can’t retain employees in the long run solely because of this extrinsic reward system. 

If you look at the McKinsey & Co. study from the screenshot below, some of the main reasons for employees leaving are that most of the leaders and organisations in the global survey do not care about areas that contribute to intrinsic motivation. 

McKinsey and company survey on employee attrition


Given that compensation has to be adequate, but there are undeniable facts, such as the leaders themselves are uninspiring and expect too much work which is not ‘meaningful’ to the employees. It is also the unsupportive environment that tells a lot about organisational behaviour

How the Right Leadership Can Increase Intrinsic Motivation in Employees

Intrinsic motivation and leadership go hand in hand. There is scholarly research, especially, in Organisational Psychology journals. 

In the article “A meta-analysis of leadership and intrinsic motivation: Examining relative importance and moderators” (2022), the type of leadership that helps is the transformational style. The correlation between intrinsic motivation and this style has been explored at length.  

The paper suggests that transformational leaders fulfil their followers' basic psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. 

Transformational leaders can contribute in stimulating their followers intellectually by encouraging creativity, innovation, and problem-solving. This is where you will find the need for competence and autonomy that is present in the Self Determination Theory. 

In an organisational setting, these leaders can create a sense of exploring new ideas and approaches, so there is a sense of autonomy among them. 

Relatedness is also how transformational leadership can provide individualised consideration to their followers. This type of leader normally acknowledges their unique strengths, weaknesses, and developmental needs. This becomes a personalised approach which is necessary for feeling valued and supported by their leader.

Another way transformational leaders help the employees relate is by creating a supportive and engaging work environment. Employees feel more connected to their leader and colleagues.

About the Author
Syed Aquib Ur Rahman
Assistant Manager

Aquib is a seasoned wordsmith, having penned countless blogs for Indian and international brands. These days, he's all about digital marketing and core management subjects - not to mention his unwavering commitment ... Read Full Bio