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What is the Difference Between Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation?

Isidora Markovic
Isidora Markovic

What is the motivating factor that drives your workforce? Everyone has a reason why they choose to get up and go to work.

While the motivation behind this decision may seem unimportant to some business owners (so long as employees do the job they’re paid to do), understanding what it is that drives your team can provide useful insights for business managers.

Understanding the psychology behind motivation is essential to improving any employee training and development program.

Psychologists recognize that there are two primary forms of motivation. These can best be described as internal motivators (intrinsic) and external motivators (extrinsic).

Why is it important to know the difference?

These motivators will directly impact how your team members behave, how they approach tasks, and how they reach goals. Delivering the correct form of motivation can encourage them to work harder, work smarter, and approach tasks with a more positive mental attitude.

Understanding extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation describes a person engaging in a task or behavior because they hope to gain a reward, or they want to avoid punishment. The motivation is entirely of an external kind – personal fulfillment or enjoyment of the task aren’t significant factors.

Why does a student study for an exam? Because they want to achieve a high score (not because they enjoy studying). Why does an employee arrive on time for work? Because they don’t want to be fired (not because they love getting up early). 

Understanding intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is much more closely linked with a sense of personal fulfillment. A person with intrinsic motivation engages in a task or specific behavior because they find it personally enjoyable or because doing so will help them to develop a desired skill. 

For example, a person may be a mediocre golfer and unlikely to ever win any awards, but they play golf every week because they love the sport. Or they may be diligently studying a new language, not because they like studying, but because of the satisfaction they feel when they’re able to converse with another person in their native tongue. 

Intrinsic or extrinsic: Which form of motivation is better?

So, which form of motivation is better?

Some people might point to intrinsic motivation as the superior form because it is more closely linked with being self-motivated. The assumption is that you’re less motivated if you have to rely on an external factor – but is this true? Not necessarily. 

If your reason for going to work is to earn enough money to support your family, then you’re extrinsically motivated, but your driving motivation may actually be stronger than a person who only goes to work because they enjoy their job.

In this scenario, the extrinsically motivated team member is going to be the one who shows up even when they don’t feel like it and who works hard to turn a project in on schedule – they’re working for the good of their family, not just their own personal enjoyment.  

In essence, both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can be viewed in a positive way. But understanding which motivator is driving your team will help you to carry out employee training programs in a way that maximizes the benefits for everyone involved.

Using the right form of motivation will enable you to train employees easily and with long-lasting results because it taps into their reasons for completing the task, not just the detail of how they complete the task.  

When to use extrinsic motivators

Extrinsic motivators can be a fantastic tool for encouraging employee engagement and performance, but they should be used sparingly and in the right situations. When offered excessively for a behavior that an individual already finds rewarding, the result can be a decrease in interest.

This situation is known as the ‘overjustification effect’ and it can be counterproductive. This is because it can make a task that was previously considered enjoyable (existing intrinsic motivation) start to seem more like work. 

So, in what situations should extrinsic motivators be used?

1. When you want to reinforce positive behavior

If your team has worked extra hard to complete a project on time and within budget, then an extrinsic motivator reinforces that this is desirable behavior.

This doesn’t necessarily need to be in the form of a financial bonus. Providing specific feedback and commendation will often be sufficient.

eduMe Messages are an ideal way to send team-specific or company-wide communications in response to a job well done.

2. When you want to encourage participation

Employees who have little interest in a task may not feel motivated to actively engage with other team members. Extrinsic motivators can encourage these individuals to get involved and be more active and vocal with their contributions.

One fantastic way to encourage participation is by giving your employees a voice with eduMe Surveys.

3. When you’d like them to engage in learning or upskilling

A person may not consider upskilling or broadening their knowledge base just for the sake of learning. In this case, an extrinsic motivator (such as the offer of a bonus or a promotion) may help the employee to embrace training opportunities.

eduMe leverages gamification to improve engagement with training material. Gamification is the use of game-like features, in non-game contexts, such as learning, to elevate the experience. (Think: levels, leaderboards).

When to use intrinsic motivators

Intrinsic motivators are designed to heighten an employee’s feeling of accomplishment and self-worth. Studies have shown that positive feedback is an effective form of intrinsic motivation because expressions of praise reinforce that a person is doing well at their job. 

But for this to be effective the feedback must be specific, genuine, and promote realistic standards. For example, “I was really impressed with how you handled that customer complaint – you were polite and empathetic and were able to resolve the issue in a way that made the company look good”.

In contrast, an offhand “good job” is generic, could sound insincere, and may do little to promote intrinsic motivation. If you want to deliver intrinsic motivators, remember to:

  • Be purposeful when offering praise. Look for specific situations where a team member has excelled and then tell them exactly why you think they’ve done a good job. This encourages employee empowerment and works as a positive reinforcement.

  • Don’t over-praise for mundane tasks. Doing so may be counter-productive, lowering your team’s levels of intrinsic motivation. A reward is no longer special if you receive it every day or for each completed task.

A final word on employee motivation

Both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators can be viewed as powerful employee retention tools when used correctly. This was well summarized by David G. Meyers in his book, ‘Psychology: Eighth Edition in Modules’, where he states:

"A person's interest often survives when a reward is used neither to bribe nor to control but to signal a job well done…Rewards, rightly administered, can motivate high performance and creativity.”

It’s clear that employee motivation plays a critical role in the ongoing success of a business. Without motivation, there is no productivity.

So, how can you implement a range of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators in a way that is effective, measurable and long-lasting?

eduMe is the ideal place to start. Providing mobile-based training that is interactive and rewarding, eduMe helps leading organizations, like Uber, Airbnb and Deloitte, all over the world, to train, engage and inspire loyalty in their employees.

Ready to achieve Workforce Success by supercharging employee motivation in your organization?👇