Why every leader needs to understand intrinsic motivation and how to build it

Written by Dan Hughes, Director of International R&D

Leaders in today’s world of work are facing a rapid pace of change involving complex and unpredictable challenges. Digital disruptions such as generative AI and other advanced technologies are changing the playing field for many organisations. This certainly doesn’t make things easy for leaders who need to find ways to energise their teams to navigate these challenges with agility and creativity.

So, how can leaders best do this and set their organisations up for sustainable success? One answer lies in having a deeper understanding of the science of motivation and shifting the focus towards more human-centred leadership – a core theme that emerged from our international research study into the future of leadership. Leading through change effectively requires leaders to foster the innate motivation and drive that comes from within employees, rather than relying on extrinsic rewards, incentives, threats, or punishment.

Understanding different types of motivation

Extensive research into the psychology of motivation shows that employees experience different types of motivation at work. These types of motivation exist on a quality continuum.

Talogy intrinsic motivation range graphic

At the lower end of motivational quality are various levels of controlled motivation, where people feel they must perform an activity or deliver a goal because of extrinsic factors. They could feel compelled to comply because of tangible rewards on offer, such as pay and incentives, or threats or punishments. It might also be partially internalised, where employees feel pressure to achieve goals because they want to gain approval or avoid disapproval from their leader or colleagues.

In contrast, high quality, autonomous motivation is characterised by people feeling a sense of choice and embracing goals because they find them personally meaningful and aligned to their values. At the very top end of this motivation continuum is intrinsic motivation, where people are fully engaged and absorbed in an activity because they find it inherently interesting and enjoyable.

Of course, at different times and in relation to different work activities and goals, it is very common for people to move between various points on this motivation continuum.

Why should leaders care about intrinsic motivation?

This is important for leaders to understand because decades of research studies indicate that more autonomous, intrinsically motivated employees tend to demonstrate greater job performance and productivity. They are more persistent, focused, and engaged in their work. Moreover, they tend to deal with change better, show more initiative and innovative behaviour, and feel greater commitment to the organisation.

On a personal level, autonomously motivated employees also report experiencing greater well-being and happiness with lower levels of burnout. So, if leaders create a climate that encourages more intrinsic motivation, this should lead to both productive and happy workers – the perfect mix.

This is not to say that rewards and incentives don’t have their place – of course they do. However, leaders should recognise these are not the foundations to build high quality motivation with their teams. In certain situations, emphasising external rewards can even have a negative impact because they narrow someone’s focus, reduce creativity, and encourage more counter-productive behaviour at work, such as a lack of collaboration.

What do employees need to become more intrinsically motivated?

Intrinsic motivation is fuelled by three basic psychological needs that everyone shares. These are:

  • Autonomy – the need to feel a sense of choice, ownership, and control of your own actions
  • Competence – the need to be effective in your role and develop new skills and expertise
  • Relatedness – the need to have positive relationships and feel a valued part of the team

For humans, these needs are just like how plants need sunlight, water, and nutrients in the soil. They are the ingredients that people need to flourish and thrive. When these psychological needs are fulfilled at work, employees will be more intrinsically motivated, perform better, and feel happier.

At work, leaders can make a dramatic difference to the employee experience (potentially the biggest difference of all). Research across a multitude of studies shows that positive leadership styles are associated with higher intrinsic motivation, while toxic leadership has the opposite effect. Leaders should therefore pay close attention to these needs and how they can best support them, especially when the working context is continually shifting at a rapid pace.

How can leaders build more intrinsic motivation at work?

Here are some practical steps leaders can take to fulfil employees’ basic psychological needs and build intrinsic motivation, particularly when leading people through change:

Build autonomy:

  • Provide an inspiring purpose and vision for change which aligns to employee values and gives them a sense of meaning.
  • Reduce the sense of change being ‘done to them’ by involving employees as much as possible in discussions about how to respond to change. If people understand the reasons for change, they are more likely to embrace it.
  • Consult employees across the different stages of a change process by asking them for their feedback and input into plans and logistics for change.
  • Empower employees by giving them clear ownership and choice in how changes are best implemented in relation to their own roles.

Build competence:

  • Provide clarity about objectives and performance expectations so employees understand what they need to do to make the change process successful.
  • Support employees by offering coaching and training in how to adapt to new ways of working. People can be anxious about the unknown, so providing support and reskilling can help.
  • Look for stretch opportunities where you can give individuals challenging but achievable tasks which will help them develop.
  • Give employees prompt and constructive feedback about what is working and not working so they know exactly how to improve.

Build relatedness:

  • Emphasise to individuals the role they can personally play in making the change process a success.
  • Ask people how they feel about new ways of working and genuinely acknowledge any concerns that they share with you. Keep in mind change is often uncomfortable.
  • Be inclusive in your approach – consciously find ways to involve everybody and ensure you hear from a variety of different perspectives.
  • Check in regularly with people during the change process and show concern for people’s well-being.

To navigate through change successfully, leaders need motivated and engaged employees. The route to this lies in more human-centred leadership, which draws on the science of motivation and recognises employees’ fundamental psychological needs. By focusing on these three psychological needs, leaders can facilitate a work climate where people are intrinsically motivated, engaged, and committed to organisational success.



Leading in the future world of work

As the world of work continues to change, the role and attributes of leaders continues to be debated and reviewed.

What are the most important changes and opportunities brought on by Covid-19, resulting in the biggest global leadership challenge in decades?

Download our research report now and explore our insights into four critical leadership themes:

  • The impact of leadership on organisational performance
  • The impact of leadership on the employee experience
  • Lessons learned from leadership in the pandemic
  • Future of leadership – critical challenges and responses
Download Now