It’s What’s Inside That Counts: The Triumph of Intrinsic Motivation

“People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity, curiosity, joy in learning… monetary awards are not a substitute for intrinsic motivation.” – W. Edwards Deming, American author, statistician, and engineer.

pexels-photo800To the shock of many managers and executives of the older generations, throwing extra money and privileges at underperforming workers no longer causes them to perk up and start producing like they should. Oh, it helps on occasion or temporarily, especially for younger workers and during economic downturns. But increasingly, motivations imposed from the outside simply fail. To many leaders, this seems bizarre, but they’re viewing the picture only from their own perspectives; they assume what would work for them works for everyone. But it doesn’t always work, especially with well-educated Millennials who have more career opportunities than ever—including the option of working for themselves.

Today’s workers are interested in doing more than surviving the rat race—money doesn’t always rule. (Click to Tweet!) Once their immediate needs for food, water, and shelter have been met, workers become interested in the other things on the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs, and those factors flow primarily from personal satisfaction and other emotional triggers.

Happiness from Within

While most workers would be happy to get better pay and benefits, only a small percentage are actively looking for new jobs at any given time. Sure, Millennials in particular have shallow roots; they’re content to move as far as another country if the company asks, as long as they’re compensated in some way and feel like what they’re doing is worth the effort. And there’s the crux of the matter.

There’s usually plenty of work for the specialist in the Western job market, and once someone finds a comfortable rung on a corporate ladder, they tend to stay put. That does not, however, mean that they’re especially engaged in their work, willing to put in more than the requisite amount of time and effort; they’re more likely to turn discretionary effort toward hobbies, family, and friends. A few thousand dollars extra won’t sway most workers from their comfort zones, nor will a cheesy “initiative” prize or even a vacation to Hawaii if their team wins the corporate sales event. No, most of us are better motivated through absurdly cheap, even free gestures. Call it ego-stroking if you like, but we want to feel good about what we do for a living, and know that it makes a difference to the company and to the world.

Today’s worker is less interested in cold, hard cash than in what some think of as “touchy-feely” rewards. Mostly, it boils down to four basic needs:

  1. We want to do meaningful work.
  2. We want to have a say in how we do it.
  3. We want to do our work well.
  4. We want to make progress toward our purposes.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? Don’t you want these things? Fortunately, many organizations and leaders already have processes in place to address these needs.

Giving Your Teammates What They Want

We all know a little public praise goes a long way toward a worker becoming fully engaged, or staying that way—and it doesn’t cost a dime. Even if you’re an authoritarian, it’s not hard to pat people on the back and tell them, in front of their peers, what a fine job they’re doing. Adding a monetary bonus just emphasizes the message.

If you maintain a blame-free environment where workers aren’t punished for taking chances or making minor mistakes, then they’ll be more likely to take ownership of their jobs. That’s the first step toward true engagement: having a say in how they do their work. Allow them to brainstorm, actually listen to their ideas without cutting them down before they mature. At the same time, realize that as times change, failed strategies may now work, either because society, cost reductions, shortages, or new technology have made them viable.

The most difficult of the four intrinsic motivational factors to meet may be helping people do their work well. Sensible organizations provide regular training to keep their workers up to date on necessary skills. You may also encourage workers to take classes on their own time to increase their personal ROI, paying for the classes if they maintain a certain GPA. That’s an attractive notion, and it can pay off by flipping the reciprocity switch: since you’ve educated them, most people will respond by continuing to work for you and putting in more discretionary effort. It doesn’t always work, but most of the time, you get more out of the deal than you put into it, and that’s the very definition of profit and productivity.

The Point of It All

As Western workers have become better educated and more productive, we’ve reached a point where we’re less likely to live from payday to payday. Security allows our personal needs for validation to come to the forefront. If you can make sure you and your team have meaningful work they have a say in and work they can do well that moves the organization toward its ultimate goals, life will become easier for all of you—and you’ll shine with the bright light of productivity.

The irony is how inexpensive it all is. At the most, it involves a change of attitude—and a dedication to providing the training people need anyway to become better workers. In such an environment, higher engagement becomes all but inevitable.


© 2016 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (January 18, 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.



  1. Barry Hall says:

    Great post Laura, many thanks for sharing it with us all. – Barry.