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What is intrinsic motivation and how does it work?

Team Asana contributor imageTeam Asana
February 10th, 2024
6 min read
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Intrinsic motivation refers to behavior driven by internal rewards. By practicing a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in the workplace, you can positively influence your team and empower a healthy workforce.

Wondering how to motivate your team without the need for external rewards? Intrinsic motivation might just be your answer. Encouraging your team with intrinsic motivation and positive feedback can be a healthy alternative to performance incentives. 

We’ll explain what intrinsic motivation is, how it works, and the differences between intrinsic motivation vs. extrinsic motivation when it comes to aligned teamwork.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is behavior driven by internal or intrinsic desire. In other words, it’s the motivation to engage in behavior that arises from within the individual rather than from without. This means that the motivation comes solely from oneself and not from external forces such as incentives like compensation or praise.

The intrinsic motivation theory was originally based on human necessities such as hunger, thirst, and basic psychological needs. This is connected to the social psychology and self-determination theory, which is a framework for the study of motivation and suggests people become self-determined when their needs for competence, connection, and autonomy are filled. 

Self-determination research is focused on motivators that we all seek to fulfill and which expand to a variety of situations, such as in a professional setting. Intrinsic needs, like job satisfaction and human connection, stem from the self-determination theory and often drive us to do our best work. Intrinsic motivation can also improve team engagement, because it involves seeking out activities that bring us internal joy and help create purpose. 

The Impact Playbook: Motivating employees in a fast-changing world

Boost motivation by helping your employees understand why their work matters. In this free ebook, learn how to create a shared sense of purpose on your team.

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Intrinsic motivation vs. extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, refers to behavior that is driven by external rewards or punishment rather than internal desires. This means external motivation can be both rewards-based and fear-based, as long as there is an external force driving the motivation.

Intrinsic motivation vs. extrinsic motivation

Let’s break down the differences between the two: 

  • Intrinsic motivation is the means of finding satisfaction within yourself. Intrinsic motivators might include curiosity or taking on a new challenge.  

  • Extrinsic motivation involves avoiding external punishment or seeking rewards. External factors that motivate team members can include extrinsic rewards—such as sales incentives or performance merits.

Human motivation is inherently different from person to person, which means the types of effective motivation will also vary from team to team. While one person may respond better to intrinsic factors, another might respond better to extrinsic factors. The key is to consider your team's needs and what’s best for their well-being.

Read: Convergent vs. divergent thinking: Finding the right balance

Intrinsic motivation examples

Now that you understand the theory behind intrinsic motivation, let’s put it to practice. We’ve put together a list of workplace examples that are motivated by intrinsic desire.

Though leadership styles can vary, it’s important for all managers to understand how to encourage team members through intrinsic motivators in order to create a positive working environment. This may involve understanding what types of extrinsic motivators to include as well.

When people are intrinsically motivated, their behavior and activities are centered around internal joy and curiosity. Examples include:

  • Participating in a team building game because it’s fun and you enjoy it rather than seek a reward.

  • Learning a new skill, like coding, because you like experiencing new things and not because it’s required.

  • Collaborating with a team member because you want to help, not because it’s a job requirement.

  • Volunteering at a work event because you feel fulfilled rather than needing it to meet a goal.

  • Continuing your education because you enjoy the challenge, rather than doing it to advance your career.

As you can see in each of these examples, the motivation to do something stems from the individual’s internal desire to do it. The benefit of doing something because you want to rather than feeling like you have to—while dependent on the situation and point of view—is likely to encourage higher quality work and happiness in the long run. 

Intrinsic motivation factors and impact

As a manager, it’s important for you and other team leaders to consider the factors that promote intrinsic motivation. Doing so can help you see the impact this type of motivation can make on your team members and within your organization. 

Motivational factors and impact

Without internal motivation, your team may feel unfulfilled and unhappy, which could lead to burnout. Thankfully, there are tangible ways to better motivate your team—intrinsically.

Factors that promote intrinsic motivation include:

  • Curiosity: A person’s motivation is piqued when their attention is grabbed by something. This feeling of curiosity pushes team members to explore and learn in the workplace. Both a physical curiosity (sensory curiosity) and a stimulus curiosity (cognitive curiosity) can motivate a pe rson to act on something. 

  • Challenge: Whether you have a specific goal or performance level in mind, challenges keep you engaged at work. They encourage you to perform at an optimal level and motivate you to push on. 

  • Recognition: Recognizing your own work can make you feel important and allows you to strive for new accomplishments.

  • Belonging: Cooperation with team members helps create a sense of community and makes employees feel like they belong. This satisfaction comes from helping others and can increase an individual’s intrinsic motivation. 

  • Problem-solving: Participating in virtual team building games can stimulate your problem-solving skills. This requires you to think critically to change your behavior.

Everyone is different, and that means what motivates you will be different too. Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can work, but if possible, it’s better to use the intrinsic motivation factors above first. 

Research shows that extrinsic motivation can actually undermine intrinsic motivation because of what’s called the overjustification effect. That is, when external rewards are offered too early, they can lose their value and hinder internal motivation. 

That said, another study found that introducing rewards early in a task can actually encourage intrinsic motivation. The consensus? Knowing which motivation factor to use is not a clear-cut answer. Motivation stems from a variety of reasons and is commonly a mix of both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. 

That’s why it’s important to encourage internal purpose and productivity in the workplace, while also using incentives as positive reinforcers.

The Impact Playbook: Motivating employees in a fast-changing world

Boost motivation by helping your employees understand why their work matters. In this free ebook, learn how to create a shared sense of purpose on your team.

Motivating employees in a fast-changing world ebook banner image

How to practice better motivation in the workplace

When it comes to motivation, both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards play a part in performance. There is no one size fits all approach to motivating your team. This opens up many possibilities when it comes to encouraging individual team members.

The important thing to remember is that you have the power to encourage your team using positive reinforcement. Providing others with opportunities and challenges can encourage them to think intrinsically and positively affect others around them. 

Ways to practice workplace motivation

Ways that you can do this include providing team members with problem solving challenges, opportunities for growing their skills, and sharing appreciation for their work with the rest of the organization. 

Empowering team members

Empowering your team members with new opportunities to problem solve can internally motivate them to do better and learn new skills. 

These could include opportunities like owning a project change or onboarding a new team member. You can empower your team to problem solve by:

Giving team members autonomy: It’s okay to give your team guidance on how to problem solve, but it’s better to give them the autonomy to solve issues independently rather than giving them the answer. 

  • Motivating with team building games and quotes: Team collaboration can improve morale and empower individuals to work together on tough problems.

These simple tasks can bring your team members together as a community and encourage not only problem solving skills but also collaboration skills for their own benefit.

Read: How team morale affects employee performance

Recognizing work

Recognizing your team’s work is a positive extrinsic motivational tactic that can make a difference in your team’s morale. It makes people feel important and motivates them to continue reaching new skill levels. Work that is worth recognizing could be as small as accomplishing an internal communication task or as large as implementing a new process. 

It’s important to recognize work frequently regardless of the size of the project or the perceived impact. You can celebrate your team’s work by:

  • Celebrating good work with the greater organization: Post in a shared collaboration space such as Slack, announce it during all-hands meetings, or even send an organization-wide update.

  • Recognizing work as often as possible: There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to frequency, but recognizing work at least quarterly is a good start.

While recognizing work in a 1:1 setting can still be motivating, it’s a good idea to let your team or organization as a whole know the great work that’s been done, too. 

Providing challenges

Giving your team challenges can inspire them to achieve new skills. This is important when looking at an individual’s long term growth professionally.

You can provide your team with challenges by:

  • Leading team members to solutions: Providing solutions is different from answers, as it gives team members the autonomy to use the solutions to find the answers on their own.  

  • Delegating work: Providing work opportunities pushes team members to discover new skills and take on new challenges. 

Challenging your team with these solutions can encourage adaptiveness to new situations and raise individuals’ self-esteem in the workplace.

Encourage your team with intrinsic motivation

When it comes to different types of motivation, think intrinsically and encourage your team to do the same. With the right motivation, you can empower your team members, increase team efficiency, and boost morale. 

Want to encourage your team to work together? Try team collaboration software that helps simplify communication and encourages teamwork.

The Impact Playbook: Motivating employees in a fast-changing world

Boost motivation by helping your employees understand why their work matters. In this free ebook, learn how to create a shared sense of purpose on your team.

Motivating employees in a fast-changing world ebook banner image

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