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Understanding Motivation in the Workplace

6 months ago by Andrea Amato

​When work feels a little slow, we turn to research to up the pace.

When hearing the term motivation, we mumble on about its meaning, how important it is to achieve in everyday life, and yet learn little about what to do to help feel more motivated. Common theories of motivation revolve around a distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, that is, whether we are motivated by internal or external factors. More importantly, research has found that this pair owns a list of influences on behaviour and determine our perspective towards pursuing goals.

Early theories surrounding motivation focused on natural and biological drives relating to things like hunger. Understanding how our behaviour responds to biological needs led researchers to question psychological needs, such as competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Satisfying these needs also helps us learn how we find things challenging or interesting in everyday life, finding purpose in our actions across a multitude of contexts.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

What is extrinsic motivation?

​We are extrinsically motivated to pursue a task in order to receive a reward or avoid punishment upon task completion. We achieve goals not because we truly want to accomplish them, but because we know we will receive something to compensate our time and efforts in our jobs. To place the theory in a workplace setting, someone who is extrinsically motivated at work is one who will attend their in-office or remote job daily to receive a monetary reward at the end of the month. In this way, salary motivates the individual to upkeep their working lives. 

And intrinsic motivation?

​Opposite to extrinsic motivation, someone who is intrinsically motivated to pursue an action or goal is one who genuinely enjoys what they do. If this means accomplishing their job goals or helping a family member out with chores, there is no pursuit in receiving a reward at the end of the tunnel, but rather the act itself is rewarding. For example, people who enjoy their jobs log on to work for the sake of working and consider their everyday tasks as rewarding. In this way, someone who is intrinsically motivated in the workplace receives immediate satisfaction in their behaviour.

Additionally, studies have shown significant brain changes reflecting the difference in perceiving goals intrinsically or extrinsically. An fMRI study conducted by Lee et al. (2012) found different brain activity between the two, noting engagement for intrinsically motivated people rely more on spontaneous decision-making based on interest and enjoyment. In contrast, extrinsically motivated people had a less immediate response, whereby action was determined by the worthiness of environmental factors (such as monetary payment).

What kind of motivation should we channel in our everyday lives?

​We spend an impressive amount of time doing our jobs, at times seeing our colleagues more than our own families. Motivation at work can differ across time, sometimes dwindling down our expectations. Poor motivation makes work challenging and unproductive, leaving guidelines on how to improve our motivation all the more important. So, what kind of motivation should we attend to?

Research has consistently demonstrated intrinsic motivation to predict improved learning, performance, and creativity, contributing to overall positive psychological development (Di Domenico & Ryan, 2017). If you are one who leans more toward intrinsic motivation generally, you will find a curious pursuit to life, seeking comfort in challenges that can result in improved skills and personal growth. This is especially important to consider in a workplace setting, where we learn skill sets through our tasks regularly.

Nevertheless, what can be intrinsically motivating for one individual may be extrinsically motivating for another. This is largely due to perceiving rewards differently according to specific activities. For instance, one employee at a banking firm may genuinely enjoy their role and seek novel tasks to enhance it, but another employee would work at the same firm because they need their wage to sustain their living.

In this way, extrinsic motivation is not completely ruled out in practice, but should be considered sparingly. This is because extrinsic motivators, such as a high salary, can undermine intrinsic motivation (known as the overjustification effect in the literature). For example, an employee receives a promotion in an already intrinsically motivating job in order to pursue added responsibilities. This can be perceived as bribery and turn a once valued job less so, causing a hindrance for employees to reach their full working potential. The overjustification effect has opened a field of research by its own merit, tasking researchers to further explore how we perceive rewards.

Intrinsic Motivation in the Workplace

​As highlighted beforehand, intrinsic motivation is an important field to explore in the workplace. Although the theory is largely studied in educational spheres, the workplace setting provides a learning environment that helps develop human capital. Recently, employers and hiring managers alike are increasingly learning the costs in recruitment over retaining talent. Upskilling and reskilling populate the media with its promise to cultivate an organisational culture that helps talent grow personally and professionally, at the risk of sounding like another corporate buzz phrase.

Constructing a supportive learning environment can take many forms, especially with a largely remote workforce. E-learning platforms are taking the world by a storm, with promising statistics increasing retention rates from 25% to 60%. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the want for these platforms to support a remote workforce, reducing the need for employees to learn in-office. That being said, socially distanced events including workshops and other training assessments are still available depending on what is accessible to organisations.

Factors to help increase intrinsic motivation include:

  • Challenge: For tasks that have uncertain outcomes, challenges allow us to eagerly work optimally to achieve goals knowing that these are possible.

  • Control: We enjoy the autonomy to conduct tasks at our own pace and determine how they will be achieved and with what outcome.

  • Curiosity: A natural tendency to be curious about our surroundings grasps our attention to pursue goals at our jobs. What we find curious stimulates a drive within to conduct necessary actions to find out more.

  • Recognition: We innately appreciate regular feedback and validation from our peers and supervisors. This is especially true when achieving workplace goals and tasks.

  • Cooperation and competition: Working with colleagues and in a team satisfies our need for togetherness and belongingness, increasing our value and satisfaction in the workplace. Competition can mean a healthy way to achieve more challenging tasks and increase our want to work well.

To summarise, intrinsic motivation plays a great role in ensuring job satisfaction alongside personal and professional development. For starters, look for things you enjoy doing at work, and craft your tasks to be more engaging where possible. Explore how your role carries meaning personally and to others. Challenge yourself from time to time and set new goals that is not influenced by external reward, rather from an intrinsic want to learn new skills. Remember how it feels to accomplish your goals and apply that positive mindset for your following projects.