The Why and What of Motivation

Motivation is a word you hear tossed around a lot—motivation to lose weight, motivation to accomplish more, motivation to do just about anything!

But what is motivation? Merriam-Webster defines motivation as “The act or process of giving someone a reason for doing something.” Motivation is what drives people to success. Think about people who are motivated to lose weight—the more driven they are, the greater success they have.

Motivation plays a critical role in employee productivity, quality, and speed of work. When employees lack motivation, these three factors are greatly affected. Leaders are typically held accountable to “motivate” their team, which is quite challenging. In fact, it is difficult for leaders to motivate their employees, because people are already motivated. The question then is not whether someone is motivated, but why they are motivated, and what they are motivated to do.

Oftentimes leaders focus on extrinsic motivation, which comes from outside of the individual. This type of motivation occurs when a person is motivated to perform a behavior or activity in order to earn a reward or avoid a punishment. For example, if someone exceeds the sales quota, a bonus may be in store, but if the sales quota is missed by a significant amount, he/she may be fired.

On the other hand, intrinsic motivation occurs when people are motivated to perform a behavior or activity because it is personally rewarding. They may engage in an activity for its own sake rather than a desire for some external reward. An example of this is employees who stay late to finalize a deliverable because they find the work fun and interesting. Intrinsic motivation is when individuals want to do something. Extrinsic motivation is when somebody else tries to make them do something.

Leaders today really need to make a mindshift change from focusing solely on extrinsic to creating an environment that is both intrinsically satisfying and extrinsically encouraging. In Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, he explains that “the secret to performance and satisfaction—at work, at school, and at home—is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world.”

Essentially, the drive for success comes from within. This means that leaders must learn how to tap into why their employees are motivated and for what, for the purpose of capitalizing on their personal drive.

Below are four tactics leaders can use to ensure they are applying both types of motivation.

Get to Know Your Employees

Be willing to take the time to meet with and listen to employees, as much as they need or want. Schedule individual meetings to focus on pinpointing what really drives them and the type of recognition they prefer to receive. Spend time observing them and how they interact with the rest of the team. Some people prefer public recognition while others do not.

Focus Conversations on Meaningful Choice, Competence, and Progress

Ensure that your conversations with team members are focused on the value of their employee contribution. In his article, “The Four Intrinsic Rewards That Drive Employee Engagement,” Kenneth Thomas discussed the importance of encouraging employees to “use their intelligence and experience to direct their work activities to accomplish important organizational purposes.” Employees make judgments about their work based on the following:

  • The meaningfulness of their purpose
  • The degree of choice they have for doing things the right way
  • The competence of their performance
  • The actual progress being made toward fulfilling the purpose

To foster motivation, leaders should weave these components into conversations with employees to ensure they understand the value they bring to the team.

Align the Intrinsic and Extrinsic Rewards

Each element of a reward system should support the others. For example, the behaviors employees are recognized for should be included when considering raises, bonuses, and/or promotions. Employees should feel this connection between the two. It is often helpful to keep written notes on these behaviors so that when evaluating annual performance, it is easy to cite specific examples of behaviors that lead to outcomes such as a particular percentage raise.

Foster Collaboration Among Your Team

Being part of a team and feeling a sense of belonging provides intrinsic rewards for employees because it fosters a stronger sense of meaning and responsibility. Teamwork can also facilitate getting innovative work done, something that can be rewarded extrinsically. Encourage employees to work together by assigning teams to complete work. Give them the tools and resources they need to effectively collaborate and place emphasis on the work they do together.


Motivation is a key consideration for success as a leader. What are some other ideas that will help leaders tap into the why and what of motivating their teams?

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