Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic Motivation

Every single employee out there right now is motivated by something. But what that motivating factor is plays a big role in how creatively those employees with think and how invested in their work they are.

We can break these motivating factors up into two groups: extrinsic and intrinsic. The former is what is most common in corporate America, but is is the latter that best fosters creative thinking.

Extrinsic Motivation

What are two of the most common motivating factors in the office? Money, and a fear of being fired. These will motivate employees to get short term projects done, but are unsustainable in the long run.

Now, these aren’t necessarily bad things; we all need money! But using it as the sole carrot to motivate employees will backfire overtime. There will always be a competitor who can pay more. If employees are only concerned about money, there are a million different ways to make a million dollars, and they won’t need you.

The fear of being fired is enough to motivate employees to do their jobs, but that’s it. They will only do the bare minimum of what is asked of them.

Instead, take a tip from the Southwest Airlines playbook. They innovated business by putting placing the interests of employees over that of the customers. You know that saying, “The customer is always right”? Well, Southwest would argue that the employees are always right.

Management didn’t threaten employees with being fired. Instead, they made employees feel secure in their jobs. That changed the entire corporate culture of Southwest Airlines, and that trickled down to the customers.

By treating the employees as valuable members of the team instead of replaceable cogs in the machine, the employees are much more invested in the company and are more motivated to do a good job.

Intrinsic Motivation

In the above example, Southwest removed the traditional extrinsic motivating factors and replaced it with intrinsic motivation. The intrinsic motivation being that they are important members of the company.

Employees motivated by intrinsic factors won’t necessarily get the job done quicker than one motivated by extrinsic factors. But the journey to reach the solution will be much more fruitful for one with intrinsic motivation, since they will be far more invested in not only completing a task, but finding the most creative way to reach that outcome. This is where innovation comes from.

Those who are highly motivated by intrinsic factors are widely recognized as creatives. They enjoy the journey towards the solution as much, if not more, than the solution itself.

The Nobel prize winning physicist Arthur Schawlow said, “The labor-of-love aspect is important. The most successful scientists often are not the most talented, but the ones who are just impelled by curiosity. They’ve got to know what the answer is.”


The difference between these two motivating factors is staggering, but I’m afraid most companies opt for the former, easier option. Motivating employees by fear and money will accomplish whatever the short term goals are, but in the long run the company will face much hardship and fall behind those that use intrinsic motivating factors.

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