Blog Archives

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: Impact on Employee Engagement

The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation lays the groundwork to reflect the qualitative dimension of motivation. The distinction is critical, in that – understanding it would serve the purpose of laying out the appropriate organizational architecture that would encourage the proper motivation that would drive employee engagement.

Intrinsic motivation reflects an engagement in activities that are performed with the sole end being satisfaction. An intrinsically motivated employee would do things simply for the sheer joy of doing things and assessing results. Tangible rewards or any rewards per se are not the ends that they drive toward. On the other hand, an extrinsically motivated employee is driven by tangible rewards – money, gifts, social approval; or they are driven specifically to avoid punishments – getting fired, rejection, being passed over for an important project, and career limiting responses.

Thus, in both instances, the theory was fairly mechanistic and behavioral. In fact, even intrinsically motivated employees can be framed in a mechanistic and behavioral world wherein the cause and effect relationship is an act and the joy of seeing a result. The only difference is that they are not connected to influences from without.  But what has become a fact is that if the organization provides the appropriate structure to allow employees to ignite their intrinsic drives, the organization will benefit more than the alternative framework. This does not mean that one has to do without the other; it does mean though that depending on the nature of the work and the stage of the company – either or both motivation archetypes can be activated which will elicit the right engagement to advance the cause of the company. The questions though remain – What, When and How?

What? The culture has to address deficiency needs. These constitute the needs like security in the job, reasonable pay, and opportunities for growth, promotions, recognition, etc. Deploying a structure that only satisfies the intrinsic inclinations will be less likely to succeed if the deficiency needs are not clearly addressed. This would mean that good organizations would embark and deploy programs to address and mitigate deficiency needs. However, all that the organization has provided upon successful deployment is a sense of shared relief.  But the organization needs to up their ante to allow for “growth needs” which is the manifestation of the intrinsic metric. That would mean to dive deeper on a case by case basis and as a group to deploy programs that fuel aspirational and idealistic goals of the employees. A great example that I immediately recall is the 3M model or the Google model wherein employees are given time to do their own thing on company time! Now this is obviously not practical for all companies, but certainly there is and will be some points that organizations can deploy to fuel “voluntary” engagement.

When?  Timing is important. An organization can set a directional tone, but when to deploy what is driven by a host of discrete or related factors – for example, rush to go-to-market, liquidity crisis, major software pushes, declaring and preparing for earnings’ release, etc.  When the organization is being driven on account of all these factors and more to ensure their survival, they do not have the degree of freedom necessarily to deploy the programs that promote “growth needs”.  In fact, some organizations in a hyper-competitive environment may always feel as if they are in a pressure cooker and thus cascade that pressure across the ranks and files of the company.  In the extreme case, if the organization is better insulated from the trials and tribulations of external factors, they would have a greater degree of freedom to nurture the “growth needs”.  Now the latter scenario is very important to understand since today we belong in the information age rather than the mechanistic industrial age. In fact, we are being ushered at a break neck pace into an age where insight gathered against information is the salient competitive distinction — the morass of data and information is fast becoming now a millstone around an organization’s neck. So to success in the Age of Insights, so to speak, the company MUST deploy programs that anticipate and nurture the “growth needs”. The case for it is amplified further by the simple fact that people are mobile and have more and more choices. Hence, the Best Place to Work is an important metric that companies and employees follow since these companies have provided the right mix. To reiterate, timing the programs is important but the fact that both programs must be deployed to ensure an engaged culture is less debatable.

How?  This is the penultimate question. Once the organization have assessed what is need and when, they have to execute. How do we establish a balanced set of programs that would fuel the appropriate level of engagement that will positively impact the organization? Conversely, how do we untether from legacy programs that were good for a particular set of circumstances, but may not be good going forward. This probably comes more in the realm of organizational psychologists but here are a few takeaways. First, employees have to be given free choice – in other words, given other alternatives, they would choose to do that alternative that optimizes and increases the value of the company the most.  A fine example would be co-founders banging away at their work 24X7 and fuelled by dreams and possibilities for their creation. Put on a spotlight on this behavior – Multiply this behavior a hundred fold to characterize mass group psychology, and then figure out what can be done to create a “permanent immanence” or the state of continuous excitement and engagement. What we know based on studies, that engagement arising out of intrinsic motivation results in creativity, well-being, cognitive flexibility, loyalty, etc. By comparison, we also know that engagement as a result of extrinsic motivation may be as good – or depending on your perspective, may be as bad as a sugar high. Engagement ceases immediately or slowly once the extrinsic motivator is removed.  In fact, a more extreme version suggests that introduced extrinsic motivation programs that serve “dependency needs” may actually depress engagement even lower than the original state.

So the general consensus appears to be to introduce not a plan but a surprise.  For example, rewards that are expected, contingent on engagement or on task completion, and tangible are more likely to be detrimental to intrinsic motivation than rewards that are unexpected, not contingent, and intangible. More studies have in fact shown that employers should pursue the internalization of an employees’ extrinsic motivation for these tasks. Thus commending employees with unplanned surprises coupled with surfacing the value of the activity in and out of the organization appeals to the individual’s innate sense of worth to the company and outside of it. Hence, recognition at deeper granularity that is served with an element of surprise in an open environment is one of the better programs that ignite employee engagement.