How to Stay Motivated at Work: Why Intrinsic Motivators are Important
When we think about motivating people at work, we often think about things like compensation, bonuses, office perks, deadlines, and other extrinsic motivators. But are these really the factors that motivate us to show up to work every day?
Here are a few insights on motivation at work from Dan Ariely and Wardah Malik of BEworks, an organization that uses human behavior and social science to solve today’s challenges. Listen to the full episode on the Creative Confidence Podcast to hear Dan and Wardah talk about what behavioral science can teach us about how people make decisions, common misconceptions about workplace motivators, and the rising importance of intrinsic motivators in the wake of hybrid and remote work.
Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivators
In the workplace, extrinsic motivators are external rewards like bonuses, health care, and retirement benefits that are meant to influence motivation. Intrinsic motivators are associated with the internal value that you get from doing a job and feeling good about it, and include feelings of pride and ownership. Organizations tend to rely more on extrinsic motivators because our intuition tells us that they do a better job of motivating us.
Why Intrinsic Motivators are Important
In order to study the effects of extrinsic and intrinsic motivators, Dan looked at data going back to 2006 on how companies treat their employees, how employees feel about their company, and what that meant for the stock market return of the company. To determine how companies treated employees, he analyzed 80 motivators, such as how satisfied employees were with their company’s retirement benefits, furniture, and coffee.
Dan simulated portfolios with the top companies based on a motivator—for example, quality of coffee—and tracked how it did over time against the S&P 500 stock market index. Portfolios that tracked extrinsic motivators like employee benefits didn’t do significantly better than the S&P 500. In fact, the portfolios that performed the best were the ones that tracked intrinsic motivators.
Learn more about activating meaning and motivation to your work in our online course Power of Purpose.
2 Types of Intrinsic Motivation
There are two main categories of intrinsic motivation:
- Goodwill: Goodwill is the difference between the minimum amount of work you have to do to keep your job and the max you could do if you really love your job. Oftentimes, that can be a fairly large gap. Goodwill is the engine that burns inside us, and in a work setting people can lose goodwill and motivation toward their company.
- Utility embracing: The second aspect of intrinsic motivation is utility embracing. It’s the idea that we should go beyond what’s stated in our job descriptions, and do what’s needed in the workplace. It’s asking, “Where else can I help?” For example, a janitor in a hospital has a job description of cleaning the facilities, but if they see a family that’s lost, it would be helpful to step outside their role and help the family find where they’re going.
Examples of Intrinsic Motivators
While there is a wide range of intrinsic motivators in the workplace, these have been found to be especially important:
- Feelings of appreciation: Dan found that feeling appreciated was one of the most important factors. Beyond just compliments, truly being appreciated by others goes a long way.
- Psychological safety: Another key motivator was psychological safety, and if people felt comfortable speaking their mind and proposing their own ideas and suggestions.
- Perceptions of fairness: People naturally compare themselves with others. Fairness made a difference—for example, if management received much larger raises than employees, that increasing gap in salaries could be a source of tension.
Motivation with Hybrid and Remote Work
The workplace is changing, from companies introducing hybrid work to four-day work weeks. As employees reevaluate what they care about in work and life, their motivations can change. Delivering on certain motivators, like appreciation and compliments, can look different in a virtual world. Because working in an office offers certain intangible benefits (connecting with others) from working remotely (convenience and time), get the best out of each experience by leaning into the distinct benefits that each provides.
Finding Purpose at Work
Having a clear purpose can guide you through change and motivate you no matter where you sit in an organization. In our online course Power of Purpose, we teach you how to craft a personal or professional purpose statement, find meaning in your work, and activate behavioral change.
Featured IDEO U Guests
Co-Founder & Chief Behavioral Scientist of BEworks
Dan Ariely is the Professor of Behavioral Economics at Fuqua School of Business, Duke University and Founding Partner at BEworks. Dan’s ground-breaking experimental research and prolific writing has made him one of the most prominent leaders in the field of Behavioral Economics; an interdisciplinary science combining psychology, and economics to understand human behavior and decision-making.
Chief Executive Officer of BEworks
For over a decade, Wardah has been committed to helping leaders develop innovative solutions in health, wealth, sustainability, and organizational behavior using insights and applications grounded in the science of human behavior. Wardah joined BEworks as one of the founding members in 2012 and since guided its global application of behavioral economics across a host of complex business and societal challenges.
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