Two Types of Motivation Every Leader Should Know

At this point, I think almost everyone has heard that research shows that motivated teams perform better than those who aren’t motivated. What is often less obvious, from what I can tell, is how to motivate teams and individuals.

I will lean on a concept that I believe is well-known. When it comes to motivation, we can break it into two types: extrinsic and intrinsic. What’s important about these two types is that if we look at what method we are using to motivate through these two categories, we can anticipate the results.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation is when external forces are used to motivate an individual. Extrinsic motivation tends to work like a sugar rush in that it hits hard, peaks quickly and then crashes. That doesn’t mean it isn’t useful, but many leaders struggle with the short-lived nature of extrinsic motivators. Here’s a list of examples:

  • Deadlines
  • Tool selection
  • Pay
  • Title
  • Bonuses

These hopefully show what I’m talking about when I say these are external to an individual. Using these can create a quick rush of motivation, but it will expire quickly, and the slump that results can be worse than doing nothing at all.

If you’re a leader using these extrinsic motivators, you need to be aware that they are very short-lived. Also, if there is no follow-through, they become even less effective and poison morale overall. The bottom line is that if you dangle a promotion or raise in front of someone and it doesn’t happen, they will likely never trust you again. The same can occur when a threat of a deadline exists, but it doesn’t really matter.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is a type of motivation that comes from inside an individual or team. This type of motivation is often elusive for folks to tap into because it seems individualistic and vague. However, this type of motivation is far less shakable than extrinsic and can carry folks through times of organizational stress. Here’s a list of examples:

  • Sense of purpose
  • Sense of agency
  • Sense of mastery
  • Sense of belonging
  • Sense of impact

It seems vague, right? If I were to ask you about what gets you out of bed in the morning or what you wish your job were like, you’d likely identify these same things. So, as a leader, you can look at intrinsic motivation as almost a reflection of what you wish you always had yourself.

In my experience, tapping into intrinsic motivation is more work but far more worth it. The challenge is that it takes time and trust, and as I’ve indicated above, many leaders erode it with extrinsic motivation.

Nevertheless, a good way to start tapping into intrinsic motivation is to change your 1:1s. Instead of focusing on performance, use them to focus on the person. Become curious about who they are and what they’re yearning for. Find a way to genuinely support them, even if it conflicts with something else. When you find a way to support them, double-check that kind of support is what they desire.

Guess What My Choice Is?

When I come into a group as a consultant, I have almost no say or leverage with extrinsic motivators. I’m an external person with no authority, so I can’t change many things that would create extrinsic motivation. I’m limited almost exclusively to intrinsic motivators.

When I work with teams, they often very quickly ally themselves with me as I become a person they each trust, and they tap into their intrinsic motivators. This leads to higher performance that sustains itself far longer than what most organizations see.

As a leader, you have more options, so my recommendation is that while you can use extrinsic motivators, you should consider them a spark, not a flame. Invest a sustained effort in your people’s intrinsic motivators, roll up your sleeves, and do the deep work of knowing your people.