Why do you work?
What keeps you continuing to show up, put effort and time in, and solving problems each day in support of a business or a mission?
What about your people? Do you know why they work? Knowing what moves people – what motivates them – and tapping into that can help you bring out the best in people. It enables them, you, and your whole team to achieve significant impacts.
In today’s episode, we are exploring motivation, diving into what leaders need to know, why it matters, and how to activate the power of intrinsic motivation. Thanks for joining us, let’s dive in.
I’m Josh and welcome to the 3x5 Leadership Podcast where we champion intentional leaders who create significant impacts. In this show, we share simple and practical strategies to help you live, lead, and learn more intentionally. Thanks for joining us for today’s episode, which is part 1 of 3 where we dive deep into motivation – understanding why people work, what keeps them inspired, and how leaders can generate motivation in healthy, sustainable ways.
So, what motivates people? I tend to bucket people’s motivation into 3 basic categories. First, is no motivation, which essentially leads to non-compliance. There is no drive, internally or externally, that leads people to act. No motivation equals no action, which equals no results.
The second bucket is extrinsic motivation, which leads to simple employee compliance. And the third bucket is intrinsic motivation, which generates a person’s commitment. I believe intrinsic motivation is powerful and what leaders should aim to tap into with their people. It’s the focus of today’s episode, so let’s start by comparing extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation is simply people’s behavior driven by external rewards or to avoid punishment. My favorite example of extrinsic motivation is the famed Seattle Seahawk football player, Marshawn Lynch, at the 2015 Super Bowl press conference, where his response to every media question was, “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.” Extrinsic motivation can be fueled by money or the threat of losing it, the desire for a promotion, status, or a title. I even heard a story once of someone interviewing a prospective employee and asked the question, “why do you work?” The interviewee’s response was simply, I need money so I can buy drugs. Now, while I obviously don’t support the source of inspiration, it does show that a wide variety of things can move people to action at work. Common practices like earning commission, end-of-year bonuses, and other company perks like those are all examples of extrinsic motivation mechanisms. It can come from a number of things, but ultimately it comes down to, “I do X so that I can get, or achieve, or avoid Y.”
But there are some issues and leadership limitations with extrinsic motivation. For one, it requires consistent leader oversight and involvement. Because Dean is clearly motivated by external things, there is low mutual trust between him and me. So, as the leader, I have to remain consistently engaged to provide him guidance and oversee his tasks, consuming my time and capacity that could be maybe better employed elsewhere. Additionally, extrinsic motivation is addicting. As leaders continue to use the stick-and-carrot style approach to motivating, people become conditioned to those expectations. In time, they will only maintain the behavior as long as the reward does too, burdening leaders to maintain consistent – and even likely escalating – rewards. Extrinsic motivation is also transactional. It’s X for Y. There is no growth, no development, learning, or tapping into the potential of others.
So, if I’m extrinsically motivated, I will likely comply with the mere basics expected of me from my boss and my business culture as long as the external source of motivation continues to flow in, or as long as punishment is curtailed.
In response, my main argument in this episode is that as a leader, I should always aim to cultivate intrinsic motivation in others first and foremost. I will settle for extrinsic-based compliance if I must, but I always start by trying to build intrinsic motivation in them first.
When we talk about intrinsic motivation, it’s about being driven by internal, personal means that are not tied to an external benefit. It can come from your belief in the organization and its mission, from the personal fulfillment you feel when contributing to something you consider significant. It can also come from your personal values that you hold and even share with the organization. As you can see, intrinsic motivation becomes a very personal experience, where each person has their unique “why” that serves as the wellspring for their commitment.
And because it is unique, it can look different from person to person. It may be an employee choosing to take on additional responsibility at work with no associated personal benefits simply because they believe in what they and the organization are doing. It can be someone seeing a problem, like some broken process at work, and taking the initiative to do something about it without being told to by their boss because they care about adding value and making the organization better. It can also be as simple as an employee understanding and committing to their role, realizing the important impact they are having through it.
Now, counter to the issues and limitations of extrinsic motivation, I believe that intrinsic motivation actually enables some pretty awesome things at work. These includes things like a readiness for development in others. They care, want to add value, want to get better, and want to make the organization better. They are open to and even seek development in order to get there. Intrinsic motivation also enables trust between leader and employee. If, as a boss, I know Becca cares about our team, our mission, and her role in it, I place more trust in her. As a result, I don’t feel compelled to micromanager her. I don’t have to stay on top of her tasks or time each day. That in turn affords me improved leader capacity. I have more time and space to think about and put effort toward other important initiatives for our organization that I may not have had time to do otherwise. And a team of people based on intrinsic motivation creates opportunity for what I’ll call graduate-level team norms. When working with extrinsically motivated people, they are not interested in nor ready for things like feedback, accountability, and high expectations. However, in a team based on intrinsic motivation, we are all ready for it, desire it, seek it, and get better from it.
Ok, now with a clearer understanding of motivation through the lens of intrinsic versus extrinsic, my next natural question is, “well, now what?” So, as we transition to the final portion of today’s episode, let’s look at 5 ways that leaders can begin cultivating intrinsic motivation in their people and their teams.
One, leaders should use motivation as a consideration when hiring new people. Let’s start by getting the right people on the bus first. So, during a hiring interview or as part of your hiring process, ask the question, “why do you work?” You may not get to the heart of the reason in their first response. So, follow it up with “why that?” And again. And again, as needed until you get the person’s core motivation for work. It might be an increased paycheck to help fund their expanded family with a newly ill parent now living at home. Or it might be because the person is passionate about your organization’s mission and is looking to have an impact on the community through it. Or it might be to get money to buy drugs! You may be surprised by the wide horizon of reasons why people work. But equipped with that knowledge, you can ensure you hire the right people and also use that to motivate them and show appreciation in ways they desire when they are on the team.
Two, be a role model for the care, energy, and commitment you want in your organization. Be passionate about who you are, what you do, and why you do it as an organization. Talk about it. Be excited about it. And do it every day. You will be surprised by how contagious your energy is as a leader. A simple question of, “why do you think our organization exists,” can surprisingly spark some great conversation with people in your team.
Three, communicate perspective to help others see the why and the broader picture. Your people below you on the organizational chart don’t have access to the same information and don’t see the broader environment you are working in like you do. Help them understand it, to appreciate it. Share what is going on around them and above them. Explain the intent behind decisions every chance you get. It may take time to add this perspective and to tell stories, but I think the time investment is worth it. An informed employee is an equipped one. And an equipped employee is an empowered one.
So, number four is to give responsibility down within your team to generate ownership. Think back on one of your first jobs and the first time you were given real responsibility for something. It could have been a product, to manage a business process, or could have even been a physical thing or space. But when your boss told you that you are in charge of it and it is yours, I imagine you did just that – made it yours! You took pride in it, put the work in to make it the best you could, and ensured it added all the value it could to the team and your customers. Responsibility generates ownership and ownership generates intrinsic motivation. So, consider ways that you can give small bits of responsibility to your people, and over time as they excel and grow through the process, you can increase their responsibility. They will be better, they will be more motivated, and the organization at large will be better too.
And finally, number five is to grant autonomy to your people. And this is a pretty significant topic, which is why we are going to make it the topic for our next part in the Motivation series in a few weeks. In it, we will explore what autonomy is, what it looks like when leaders grant autonomy, and a few ways you can begin leveraging this powerful tool yourself. So, I look forward to this next episode and I hope you join us as we continue this short Motivation Series.
So, think about why you work. How are you motivated? Leaders must always start by understanding ourselves first.
How can you assess the source of motivation for your people this week? How can you find out “why they work” and use that to lead and motivate them in the best way possible?
Is there one thing you can adjust this week focused on cultivating intrinsic motivation in others?
Now as we end today’s episode, I just want to thank you for joining us and listening. Our team is new to podcasting and we deeply appreciate your support as we get this thing off the ground. We still have a lot of kinks to work out on this show, we know, so thanks for still choosing us.
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So, that’s it for this week, friends. Thanks for your support and for showing up every day in whatever leadership role you fill. Everyone is entitled to exceptional leadership, and you provide that leadership.
I’m Josh, and until next time, take care and lead well.