Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: How to Handle Both

Chris Desrochers
July 13, 2020

There's a difference between loving your job and loving your work

There's a difference between loving your job and loving your work. Getting your employees to love both will drastically boost their performance. But it's easier said than done.

It all comes down to extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. What are the key differences, and how can you use them to engage and push your team? Extrinsic motivation is, in the simplest terms, working for an external reward. This is the shape of most employers' motivation strategies, offering their workforce awards, bonuses, and recognition. Even raises and promotions are classified as extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is working for the joy of the work, the personal satisfaction gained in practice and problem solving.

Most employers avoid intrinsic motivation strategies entirely, not because they're unaware of them, but because they're too difficult to design. How do you make someone enjoy something? It either happens naturally or it doesn't happen at all. Yet intrinsic motivation has been proven to be more successful at increasing productivity and bettering results. People who enjoy their jobs tend to get more done.

Why Extrinsic Motivation Doesn’t Work Alone

Extrinsic motivation, while initially effective, has its shortcomings. Plaques, bonuses, and company-wide recognition may encourage more focus and productivity at first, but these incentives can become blunted over time, according to psychologist Victor Vroom.

Moreover, when a group of employees is assigned a task, and a single member of that group feels he or she is doing all the work, extrinsic motivation decreases. Why should one person work so hard when all of them will be rewarded for that work?

Often employees lose extrinsic motivation because they don't think their efforts will be noticed at all. They'll miss out on the rewards they're working for because they've failed to catch management's eye. If you're a manager, you may have found yourself on the other side of this, fearing to promote the wrong person because you've missed out on the excellence of another.

Even if their diligence is noticed, many employees lose extrinsic motivation because the rewards for that diligence won't arrive for months, when their next performance review finally arrives. It can be difficult to believe that the extra three hours you put in this week will be remembered at the end of the quarter.

The Challenge of Intrinsic Motivation

Mark Twain once famously said, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” This is the basic idea behind intrinsic motivation. The job itself becomes the motivation. In an ideal world, everyone would naturally feel this joy, leading to a self-perpetuating cycle of productivity and happiness.

That’s clearly not the case. A 2017 Gallup poll found that, worldwide, only 15% of employees are “engaged” at work. The vast majority of us are unhappy with our jobs. Is there a way, then, to foster intrinsic motivation?

In 1980, researchers Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham published a book called Work Redesign after studying a group of people who are intrinsically motivated. It presented a five-factor model of job traits intrinsically motivated people rely on:

  • Skill variety: How many different skills does it take to complete this task?
  • Task identity: How does this task contribute to a finished product?
  • Task significance: How does this task positively impact the lives of others?
  • Autonomy: Did I choose this task and how I’ll complete it?
  • Feedback: Do I get to see the effects of my work or know if I accomplished it well?

Since Hackman and Oldham’s study, the conversation around intrinsic motivation has all been focused on answering these five questions for employees. It may be that relaying a customer’s positive feedback about how a particular sales rep’s “extra mile” effort made her day brighter could be every bit as motivational as a raise or bonus. This is also why it’s important to cast the vision for your team, letting them know that their efforts are working to promote a common goal.

Yet you’ve probably already seen the issue with this— it takes more time than you have. Intrinsic motivation can be developed, but only if you dedicate enough resources to it.

So extrinsic motivation loses its luster, and intrinsic motivation is untenable. What’s the answer?

At Arcade, our gamification app isn’t just designed to provide extrinsic rewards to diligent employees. It’s also here to make work fun, to cultivate that spirit of joy and intrinsic motivation. How do we do it?

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Fixing Extrinsic Motivation

One of the major obstacles to extrinsic motivation is that regular awards can become boring over time, losing their appeal. Arcade allows you to customize a range of different rewards for your performing employees, keeping the lineup fresh and exciting.

A lack of teamwork within group projects is another issue. No one wants to pull the weight of the whole group. Arcade provides each team member a general picture of how he or she is doing compared to the others in the group. This creates a cohesive standard of diligence across the team, with compounding energy.

Then there’s the very practical problem of achievements flying under the radar of management, or being forgotten by the employee’s next performance review. It’s not an issue with Arcade. An employee’s completed tasks are rewarded in real time, and she can constantly check her progress toward her personal goals. Then management can monitor that progress as they have time. It’s like a minute-by-minute performance review without the awkward meetings. This tool can be especially helpful if your team works from home, since you can’t be there to keep them on track.

Fixing Intrinsic Motivation

Let’s break this down by Hackman and Oldham’s five factors of intrinsic motivation. Arcade addresses each of them to help cultivate intrinsic motivation.

  • Skill variety: Varying employee tasks is a great way to improve each worker’s skill set, but it can be frustrating at first to certain personality types. You can help them overcome the initial hesitation of new tasks with Arcade, gamifying each new position. This will reward each worker for his or her strengths and challenge them to improve in their weaker areas. You’ll have a team of well-rounded, fully trained experts in no time.
  • Task identity: Arcade is a powerful communication tool, giving you the ability to send your team new goals and objectives in real time. It’s a constant reminder that their formerly mundane, day-to-day tasks are part of a bigger picture.
  • Task significance: You can use Arcade to publicly recognize a star employee about whom a customer has offered positive feedback. Reading that review, and knowing the whole team is reading it, too, will emotionally reward that member of the team.
  • Autonomy: Once your employees begin to see their progress stacking up on the Arcade app, they’ll choose to dive into their daily tasks, rather than waiting to be directed.
  • Feedback: Since you can’t always be there to high-five every employee every time they do something right, let Arcade do it. Every coin collected or badge earned is another piece of encouraging feedback, so your employees will always know they’re on the right track.

It’s likely that you’ll find the most success with a good balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivational techniques. Get started with Arcade today.

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