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Is Employee Motivation Increasingly Beyond Our Control?

When it comes to motivating employees, some employers feel a growing sense of helplessness.

It stems from a body of research showing employees are less and less motivated by the traditional extrinsic rewards that employers control and dispense with relative ease—raises, bonuses, promotions, etc. Instead, this research shows, workers are increasingly motivated by intrinsic rewards—the internal sense of achievement and satisfaction people feel from doing meaningful work and making contributions that are valued by their organizations.

Daniel Pink’s bestselling book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, has been used for years in the business world to support the contention that intrinsic rewards are top dog in motivating employees.

Kenneth Thomas also made a case for intrinsic rewards in his book, Intrinsic Motivation at Work: What Really Drives Employee Engagement. In a piece Thomas wrote for the Ivey Business Journal, he identified the four intrinsic rewards that have the greatest impact on employee motivation:

1. A sense of meaningfulness—employees feeling as though they have opportunities to accomplish something of real value.

2. A sense of choice—employees feeling free to choose how they accomplish their work.

3. A sense of competence—employees feeling as though they’re doing good, high-quality work.

4. A sense of progress—employees feeling that their work is on track and moving in the right direction.

Despite the deeply internal and personal nature of these intrinsic motivators, it’s crucial to note that employers have a strong impact on all of them.

Look at the list again. Employees don’t simply “feel” these things in a vacuum. They feel them in the context of the work environments we provide. From an organizational perspective, we either nurture or stifle these intrinsic motivators through the types of cultures we build and the people practices we put in place.

Our supervisors and managers also have a tremendous impact on intrinsic motivators. After all, they interact with employees on a daily basis, which means the support and guidance they provide (or fail to provide) will color an employee’s internal impressions to a great degree.

The truth is the debate on intrinsic and extrinsic rewards doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. As Thomas himself pointed out, no matter how powerful intrinsic rewards are, “extrinsic rewards remain significant for workers.” In other words, financial rewards, benefits, paid vacations, and career advancement are all tied to an employee’s “sense” of worth and fulfillment—and to their motivation—just as surely as the intrinsic rewards listed above.

Yes, intrinsic motivation is very much an internal matter for our employees. But let’s not kid ourselves. We influence their internal landscape—and that’s good news because it means we needn’t feel helpless when it comes to motivating them. No matter which set of rewards are more effective—intrinsic or extrinsic—neither are completely beyond our control.