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Is intrinsic motivation at work overrated?

We know about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. But those aren't the only options for inspiring employees.

5 min read


What motivates you?

Svilen Milev/

An executive I worked with recently told me about the best-selling books he’d read, the popular TED talks and animated videos he’d watched, and the bazillion blogs he’d blazed through on the topic of motivation.

He found the idea of intrinsic motivation intriguing. Yet, he found himself asking three questions:

  1. Realistically, how often are people intrinsically motivated at work?
  2. What about goals people don’t find naturally enjoyable, inherently rewarding, or interesting? What about tasks that are outright annoying, enervating or boring? Would people pursue those goals or work on those tasks if they weren’t paid or incentivized?
  3. What percentage of their job would people report as intrinsically motivating?
  • The reason for my motivation is pure fun and enjoyment.
  • I have an unexplainable interest and attraction to the activity without external rewards or incentives.
  • Doing the activity is something I have always gravitated to naturally.

After giving the questions more thought, the executive concluded: Intrinsic motivation is nice, but impractical and unrealistic. People still need extrinsic motivation.

He explained, “Since people cannot always be intrinsically motivated at work, people’s motivation needs to be augmented with extrinsic motivation.” He was ready to re-embrace intangible rewards (such as status and winning competitions) and tangible rewards (such as bonuses, incentives and prizes).

I empathized with the executive’s conclusion. I have crafted a rich work life based on what I love to do — learn, teach, write, speak and travel. Even so, much of my time is spent on activities I am not intrinsically motivated to do — going through security lines at airports, filling out expense reports or clearing my email inbox, for instance. Yet, I could not support his conclusion.

The executive had decided: Intrinsic motivation + extrinsic motivation = the best solution.

The problem, I told him, is motivation doesn’t work that way.

1. Motivation is not additive.

Do external rewards motivate people? Absolutely. Unfortunately, the type of motivation generated by external rewards is suboptimal — limiting results, creativity, innovation and well-being. For example, the use of pure sales commissions led to the highest level of turnover of any study that has ever been published in organization psychology literature.

Adding external rewards to augment intrinsic motivation doesn’t work either. People cannot be intrinsically and extrinsically motivated at the same time. A meta-analysis of 128 studies found that the addition of extrinsic rewards undermined free-choice intrinsic motivation and self-reported interest.

Bottom line: Extrinsic motivation is a double whammy that doesn’t generate positive results on its own merit and negatively affects intrinsic motivation.

2. Realistic and powerful alternatives work better than extrinsic motivation and maybe better than intrinsic motivation.

Two types of motivation — aligned and integrated motivation — can lead to the same positive outcomes as pure intrinsic motivation.

Aligned motivation happens when people connect their personal values to the work they are asked to do. The downside? People need to know what they value and how their personal values translate into values at work. Most organizations do a decent job of identifying organizational values, then stop the process, failing at the individual level.

Unlike intrinsic motivation, aligned motivation requires conscious effort. The upside? The effort is worth it. People experience all the good stuff of intrinsic motivation: they can attain a state of flow, experience well-being and sustain high performance.

Integrated motivation happens when people link deeper meaning and sense of purpose to a work activity — so much so that the activity becomes part of their self-identity. The downside? People may claim to have a life purpose statement of some kind, but rarely do they consider the big picture to see how an activity plays into their life or work purpose. The upside? This type of motivation doesn’t depend on “enjoying” an activity. When powered by purpose, people do amazing, creative, and innovative work for extended periods of time — and thrive while doing it.

This is not too good to be true. Leaders can learn the skill of facilitating people’s shift to an aligned or integrated motivational outlook.

3. Aligned, integrated, and inherent (intrinsic) motivation are too essential to give up on.

The leading researchers on intrinsic motivation, Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, write:

“Perhaps no single phenomenon reflects the positive potential of human nature as much as intrinsic motivation, the inherent tendency to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacities, to explore, and to learn. Developmentalists acknowledge that from the time of birth, children, in their healthiest states, are active, inquisitive, curious, and playful, even in the absence of specific rewards.”

The executive was convinced, so we are collaborating to create a culture that isn’t dependent on outdated methods of motivation. He would agree, intrinsic motivation isn’t overrated — we need to encourage it where we can. But in its absence, we need to help people thrive while producing optimal results through aligned and integrated motivation.


Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of by-lined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling “Self Leadership” and the “One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

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