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Jim Barnett



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Employee experience: the power of intrinsic human motivation at work

Energising employees isn’t just about bonuses and promotions – it’s about what’s inside.

All too often, today’s organisations tend to rely on employee motivators like performance bonuses, promotions, salary increases, or sabbaticals after a long stint of service. This thinking is also reflected in use of tactics like ‘pay for performance’, the traditional performance appraisal, performance ratings, and so on.

Without a doubt, all of these tactics have the power to motivate employees, and the vast majority of organisations use a mix of approaches to encourage their people to perform at high levels, as well as to uphold values and deliver on brand promise. Despite all of this, how do you know if you’re motivating your people effectively?

Intrinsic motivation comes from within. It’s the excitement you feel to push on a project because the work itself, rather than the deliverable or the reward you might get for finishing it — energises you.

The danger is that when we exclusively use external rewards to get people to achieve goals, it can feel like we’re attempting to control their behaviour. Instead of feeling excited and challenged to exceed a target, people sometimes hit the set goal, but go no further.

Intrinsic motivation, however, spurs employees to go above and beyond. A recent piece of high-level HR data analysis, for instance, found that when it came to motivating people to complete complex, quality-focused tasks that involve creativity, this inner motivation was nearly six times more powerful than external motivation in predicting performance.

We need to take note of this and start redesigning our HR and performance practices to realise the vast potential employee intrinsic motivation has in lifting organisations to levels previously unreached.

Making employee psychology work for you

Simply put, intrinsic motivation comes from within. It’s the excitement you feel to push on a project because the work itself, rather than the deliverable or the reward you might get for finishing it — energises you. It’s the sense of trust you experience when you get a chance to handle a big opportunity on your own.

Social psychology studies have identified several key precursors to intrinsic motivation in the workplace, including:

  • Meaningful team and manager relationships to encourage frequent and open communication.
  • High autonomy and trust in employees.
  • Clear alignment between employee strengths and the work they’re asked to lead or support.

While we all generally share these basic needs, it’s important to note that each of us is slightly different in what we require to feel intrinsically motivated. It’s vital for managers and mentors to have regular touchpoints with employees to specifically tailor the employee experience to each individual.

Using intrinsic motivation for sustainable performance

What does intrinsic motivation look like in practice? Tapping into your employees’ intrinsic motivators doesn’t have to involve a major change in practice. Following these tactics,  your organisation can build a stronger culture that inspires your people to work smarter, and perform above and beyond the call of duty.

First, use insights from your employee engagement surveys to inform frequent conversations between managers and employees. These conversations will help leaders know what your people need to be successful.

A sense of belonging and ownership are a big part of what motivates employees to show up and do their best work, rather than just clock-watching and picking up the paycheque. 

Secondly, help employees take more ownership of their work. Encourage them to set goals and participate in decision making; give them freedom over how they do parts of their job, and let them influence how they are rewarded.

Finally, coaching is key. Coaching here means more than just providing feedback – it means helping employees navigate their own path to success, and find answers they already have inside of them. It’s about enabling your people to tap into their own passions and experience to reach the best solution, with guidance along the way.

Putting intrinsic motivation to work

Understanding what motivates your employee, and leveraging it at the right moments, has the power to transform your business. For one organisation in the transportation industry, employee and customer safety is the crux of their success. Through careful analysis of the feedback provided by the organisation’s nearly 100,000+ employees using modern employee engagement technology, its leaders were soon able to identify a high correlation between employee engagement levels and the risk of injury on the job.

The most surprising finding? That it wasn’t external factors, like the availability of injury-prevention resources, that caused the biggest disparity in injury rates across locations. Instead, the analysis revealed that the employees who tend to be safer at work are those who express feeling a sense of belonging, trust, and empowerment. By extrapolating this knowledge by location, the organisation can now predict, a quarter in advance, which sites injuries are likely see the highest rate of mishaps, and leaders can address engagement issues and make resource adjustments accordingly.

Like every organisation, this company’s people were driven first and foremost by intrinsic motivation, a self-sustaining source of fulfillment and performance that contributes to both individual and organisational success.

These factors — a sense of belonging and ownership — are a big part of what motivates employees to show up and do their best work, rather than just clock-watching and picking up the paycheque. So let’s pay our teams the respect they deserve by acknowledging this and aligning our HR and performance practices to unlock the vast potential employees’ intrinsic motivation has in lifting performance.  

Interested in this topic? Read High performance: driven by passion, not perks.

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