The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

“Don’t worry when you are not recognised, but strive to be worthy of recognition.”
– Abraham Lincoln


Intrinsic Motivation is when we perform an action without any obvious external reward. We do it because it naturally satisfies us within.

Why are you reading my blog right now? Is it because the subject interests you and you want to learn more about it? Well good on you! That’s intrinsic motivation! You’re getting no praise for reading it – if you were, that would be extrinsic motivation.

It is rare that you’ll find me sitting in front of the television for hours on end (unless I have a temporary Netflix boxset addiction – it’s Line of Duty at the moment by the way!). I would most likely be researching subjects online that I want to learn more about. I might be scrolling through the iTunes store looking for new artists in the ‘Listeners also bought…’ section to expand my musical knowledge. I might be watching International netball videos on YouTube looking for tips and strategies for my team. I may even be blogging! The point is, I don’t do any of these activities for praise or reward. When I’m doing them, I’m looking for that dopamine-inducing, powerful feeling of internal satisfaction I get when I challenge myself and act on curiosity. I feel proud when I’ve learned something new and often look forward to the day I get to use it. It’s a feeling of bettering oneself.

Imagine you were tasked with writing a bedtime story for your friend’s child. Your friend told you that her daughter loves unicorns and dragons, so make sure you include those. Oh, and she also likes stories that involve singing, not to mention how much she loves rhyming. By the way, you have two hours to write this story and if you get it done on time, she’ll pay for your pizza. Being a good friend, you write the story and get your free Hawaiian for doing so.

In this story, the pizza is the extrinsic motivator, along with praise from your friend and her daughter. You’ve got ‘the reward’ but you might not necessarily have enjoyed the process. You didn’t learn anything yourself and you certainly didn’t enjoy the subject matter of unicorns!

The sad fact is, not every real world behaviour or activity stems from intrinsic energy, as this scenario proves. It is for this reason that I personally seek out activities that interest and excite me, ones that boost my creativity and self-esteem. Ones that make me an all-round happier person.

I think back to when I was in school. I worked hard, revised for my exams and passed all my GCSEs and A Levels. Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation was at play here. Yes, I wanted the praise off my parents and teachers and the pride of being a set one student, but I also wanted to feel good about the work I had put in to get there.  I was controlling my own learning and liking the result.

American and Australian Psychology Professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan developed Self-Determination Theory (SDT) which talks about the three psychological needs of a human: to feel competent, related and autonomous. When we feel all three, we will actively seek out what interests us, thus we are intrinsically motivated. The bottom line here is that if you are simply uninterested in a particular activity then you are not intrinsically motivated.

Think about your job and the SDT. Are you good at it? Does it mean anything to you? Do you have freedom within in? I’m here to tell you that if the answer is no to any of these questions, then do not fret. I believe you can feel intrinsic motivation in a job you’re not 100% happy in.

You might be someone who loathes repetition but in your job, you have to speak and say the same messages over and over to people all day, every day. What you need to do is start integrating you actions into your sense of self. Try to get something out of it, any positive feeling at all. Some of those people you have to talk to might not have talked to anyone else all week because they live alone, have no family and rarely leave the house. Greeting them with a smile and asking them how you can help might be the highlight of their week. Sure, you won’t get praise from your manager every time you do this and you certainly won’t get a pay rise, but you feel good about it anyway.

All this is, is relating every activity you do to your own personal growth as a human. Think about it as up-skilling and bettering yourself. Don’t do it for others, do it for you.

Hobbies are considered intrinsically motivated. You do these hobbies with a passion you rarely exhibit at work. It is your hobby because you feel competent at it, connected to it and are free to do it how and when you want to do it. It’s that Self-Determination Theory again!

I’m writing about this subject tonight because of my interest in Engagement, whether it’s at work or at home. If you are reading this as a Manager and you want your staff to feel engaged, motivate them by empowering them and ensuring they have autonomy in their job. Train them up to feel more competent. Relate what they are doing to the company – make sure they see the bigger picture. Try to move away from those extrinsic motivators which only change employee behaviour temporarily instead of changing their beliefs and commitment to their job.

If you are the employee reading this, you have a responsibility too. Look at your daily objectives and start thinking outside the box. What can I get out of work today? Look at the skills you’re utilising and gaining each day and write them down in a LinkedIn profile – you might find people endorsing them which always makes one feel good! Are you the go-to person on a particular topic in the office? Write something about it for the Intranet and share you knowledge with others. Help that person on your floor that is struggling to get their work done on time. The actions that can be taken to improve life at work are endless.

Find yourself that intrinsic motivation and start getting more out of life.

I work hard because I WANT to, not HAVE to.