Leadership,  Performance

What is Motivation?

Motivation is key to success but do you know what motivates you? Do you know why?

Understanding motivation theory helps determine what motivates people, why it motivates and how to keep that motivation up. To be motivated means to be moved to do something. The literature identifies two types of motivation; intrinsic and extrinsic. Basically, one is internally motivating and the other externally motivating. Let’s look at the two in more detail.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is doing something because it is inherently interesting to you or enjoyable. An example is a student who studies out of interest and curiosity, rather than to attain some desired grade or outcome such as graduation. It tends to be longer lasting and inspires higher performance.

In our healthiest states, humans are inquisitive, active, and curious creatures who do not require outside reward to explore and play. When we think of child development, this is exactly what is taking place. It’s a powerful force for learning. It isn’t until children are older that they learn to perform actions for the approval of their parents or other onlookers.

Our intrinsic motivation is capitalized when we feel a sense of competence. Effective feedback, optimal challenge, and an environment free of demeaning attitudes all enhance the intrinsic motivation of the individual. A sense of competence alone, is not enough. The individual must also feel they had the autonomy and that the success is due to their efforts and not some external factor. Basically, people have to feel their successes are self-determined.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation on the other hand, refers to doing something because it leads to some external outcome. After early childhood, extrinsic motivation becomes more prevalent as we begin to face expectations and societal pressures. After all, we can’t always just do as we please, we have responsibilities (yuck).

If we continue our example of the student, the student is extrinsically motivated when they study hard in order to get a good grade, or graduate. Maybe they are trying to meet their parent’s expectations.

In business, when an employee is motivated by their paycheck instead of the job content, they are extrinsically motivated. The ideal scenario is an employee who believes in their work and finds it rewarding in and of itself. That doesn’t mean the pay check isn’t important though.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation in Business

How do we leverage motivation in Business? Let’s look at some examples.

One sales person who is motivated by the challenge of becoming the top sales person. They cultivate their skills through mentorship, coaching and are often found reading books on sales. If this individual is excited by the prospect of developing themselves then they are intrinsically motivated. If they are motivated by the bonus and recognition of being the top performer, then they are extrinsically motivated.

The employee who does not see the relevance of their role but rather is simply looking to make a paycheck to support their family is extrinsically motivated. If that employee then begins to derive purpose from their job by learning of its importance to the organization and is possibly given opportunities to enhance their skill can begin to cultivate intrinsic motivation.

Using Motivation in Leadership to Enhance Performance

Understanding that harnessing the power of intrinsic motivation can increase the performance of the workforce, how do you do this? For starters, find out what people WANT to do in terms in roles. This can often be accomplished easily enough in discussion and understanding their ultimate goals with the organization.

Next, you can bring in a consultant who is well versed in the different available metrics that can be used to match people not only to the roles they want to do but the ones that are well suited to their skill sets. By incorporating their strengths into the process, you can see how you are beginning to create a high performing team with individuals who are ripe to feel competent in their roles.

What do you do if the strengths and desires don’t align? There are two possibilities; find a similar role and use extrinsic motivation to motivate, or train to suit. As a leader, providing effective feedback to employees help to motivate them and also helps them to develop new competencies. Helping your workforce to create actionable, smart goals with milestones is another way to foster competence with a sense of self-direction.


Ryan, Richard M. & Deci, Edward L. (2000) Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations; Classic definitions and new directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 25. 54-67.