Moving Beyond Intrinsic Motivation

We’ve made progress with motivation at work—but we need to move beyond looking at motivation as being either extrinsic (bad) or intrinsic (good), according to motivation expert Susan Fowler. 

Fowler, the best-selling author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…And What Does, explains that motivation is more robust than that.

“Reducing motivation to a simplistic model of either intrinsic or extrinsic excludes alternate approaches. If managers believe that when people are not intrinsically motivated to pursue a goal or do a task, their only other choice is extrinsic motivation, they tend to default to external rewards to entice people to take action. What’s worse, if managers don’t have incentives, rewards, promotions, or perks to offer, they tend to apply pressure and fear to motivate people.”

To open up possibilities, Fowler and her co-researchers have identified six ways of being motivated, each having distinct implications.

“For example, you could be motivated through a value you hold or a purpose you strive toward. While values and purpose are traditionally considered extrinsic forms of motivation, when they lead to an aligned or integrated motivational outlook, they can work as well as any intrinsic motivator.”

Looking beyond an either/or model of motivation creates additional choices and gives leaders more options in helping facilitate a shift to optimal motivation from what Fowler calls suboptimal motivation. She shares a personal story to help illustrate how this works.

“I am optimally motivated through my values, purpose, and pure joy to teach people about these ideas. But there is one thing I will never be intrinsically motivated to do, and that is working my way through security lines at airports. Long lines are challenging for me because of my tendency toward impatience. I’m not inherently motivated to stand in line. I usually look for the shortest line, or one that doesn’t have a family in it, so I can get through as quickly as possible.

“One day when I was stressed out trying to judge the fastest security line and getting frustrated that mine was moving too slowly, I thought What am I doing? My impatience was upsetting me physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I decided to figure out a way to shift my motivation to something more optimal.

“At first I settled in on my value of learning. What could I learn? I decided I could learn patience. So I considered how to take this opportunity to be more patient. The next time I entered security, I stepped into a line just behind a family that was traveling with a toddler and a newborn.

“As they were struggling to get all of their belongings on the belt, they suggested I go ahead of them.  Instead, I asked if it would help them if I held their baby.  They said, ‘Omigosh, yes!’

“That’s where I experienced unexpected intrinsic motivation. I love holding babies!  After the family got through security, I continued to hold the baby while they got all of their stuff together. I was having a double optimal motivation experience: fulfilling a value for learning patience and the joy of holding a baby. To make things even better, the father thanked me, saying, ‘We couldn’t have made it through security without your help. I just want you to know what a difference you made to us today. Thank you so much!’” With that, he tapped into my life purpose of being a catalyst for good.

“That moment was so rewarding. I had shifted from a stressful imposed suboptimal motivational outlook for going through security to experiencing three different optimal motivational outlooks—aligned, integrated, and inherent.” 

Fowler is quick to point out that this kind of shift is more than a theoretical idea—it is a practical skill that can be learned. She encourages individuals and leaders to look at how they currently approach motivation and consider new approaches beyond carrot-and-stick thinking.

Her approach is to teach leaders how to have conversations that help people experience optimal motivation such as the MVPs of mindfulness, values, and purpose. The goal is to help people understand the reasons for their motivation. The result is higher quality motivation that is based on meaningful values and a noble purpose.

Fowler believes that helping people satisfy their psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence in the workplace is a key skill for leaders. The leader’s role is to facilitate people’s shift to an optimal motivational outlook. In Fowler’s experience, when leaders do this, it makes the application of other leadership skills more effective.

“A strong foundation in motivation science elevates traditional leadership skills. For example, consider the benefit when you combine traditional goal setting with a motivational outlook conversation about achieving the goal. These conversations give managers an opportunity to help people find relevance, meaning, and deeper connection to their goals. Skipping over the motivational outlook conversation or jumping to a problem solving or action planning conversation with people when they are suboptimally motivated on the goal, problem, or plan usually leads to suboptimal results down the road.

“People work best when they are pursuing goals for high-quality reasons. Ask people questions that help them connect their goals to their values and sense of purpose. People who make this connection not only perform at a high level and achieve their goals; they flourish.”


Would you like to learn more about how to create a workplace where people experience optimal motivation? 
Join us for a free webinar!

Leadership Skills: Applying the New Science of Motivation
Wednesday, June 29, 2016
9:00 a.m. Pacific Time

Motivation science provides a compelling case for rethinking leadership competencies. In this webinar, motivation expert Susan Fowler looks at the latest research on how people are motivated and how to encourage that type of environment in your organization.

Fowler will explore how to enhance any leadership development curriculum by applying the new science of motivation. Participants will learn how to

  • Develop criteria for leadership development strategies that take advantage of motivation science;
  • Reframe traditional leadership competencies that currently undermine people’s psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence; and
  • Explore cutting edge best practices to create a workplace where people flourish while producing results.

Don’t miss this opportunity to learn how you can increase the effectiveness of leaders in your organization by providing them with motivation tools and techniques that bring out the best in people.

View Now