Workplace motivation: quick definitions to help you understand employees


A cursory (but hopefully helpful) look at different types of workplace motivation.

We all know why we work. We do so out of some combination of our needs and wants. Work gives us the resources to sustain and nourish our lives and the lives of our loved ones. It can also be enjoyable, inherently interesting and a worthy challenge. Most profoundly, it can give us purpose and contribute to our identity.

For anyone interested in managing people in a workplace, the consideration is less philosophical and more practical. Why people would want to work for you. What combination of factors have the most significant effect on your staff? Is it the pay? The flexible hours or the remote work you offer? Do you invest in their careers, and therefore make them feel obliged?

The answer is important because knowing it can contribute to business success. It will inform compensation policies, succession strategies, learning and development and so on. So the more sophisticated your understanding of motivation and the more you are able to distinguish between different types, the better.

But before we get into the key concepts underlying motivation it’s important to know that…

Unfortunately, you can’t ignore complexity

There are no secret codewords that will allow you to read your employees’ minds or categorise them neatly. Humans are complex and what motivates any individual is multi-faceted. For example, almost every employee is at least partially motivated by money – even as they are also loyal to the company, keen to advance their career and so on.

Motivations are also in flux. The worker who loves their job will quit for their children’s sake. The worker who phones it in just to get paid might become dedicated under the guidance of a more inspiring manager.

So instead of definite labels, we have a framework that is a small part of a bigger thing called self-determination theory. Like all frameworks, it’s flawed, argued over and being added to all the time. It’s not even close to encompassing the full truth of motivation, but it does grapple with some of its crucial principles.

Because of this, it’s better to use these ideas to look at single tasks rather the try and apply them to any person’s psychological makeup.

So, caveat in place, let’s begin. In the broadest sense, there are two types of motivation.

1. Intrinsic motivation

If you are intrinsically motivated you do the task because of the task; the nature of the work is reason enough to do it. It’s circular. Think of the artist who paints because they love painting, or the student who studies because the knowledge is its own reward.

Up front it’s important to say there is probably no person on earth who is 100 per cent intrinsically motivated to do their whole job. At least some of its tasks will not be enjoyable in and of themselves. The painter might love painting, but do they also love promoting their work and the bureaucracy of renting a studio?

Where ‘intrinsic’ does get definitionally confusing is around what constitutes ‘the work’. What if it’s not really the process of work you enjoy but the product that comes out of it? If joy comes from the thing you produce – the finished painting as opposed to the act of painting – is that truly intrinsic motivation?

There is at least some academic disagreement on this, but so long as the reward and goal is the work itself, and not something outside of it, let’s call it intrinsic. Otherwise we’ll go down a philosophical slippery slope and start asking if anything can be *truly* intrinsic – for what is ‘process’ and what is ‘product’?

So, for our purposes, an IT technician is intrinsically motivated regardless of whether who they love the process of solving problems or because they love arriving at a solution. 

2. Extrinsic motivation

Technically all motivation that isn’t intrinsic is extrinsic. But since that covers everything from cash and kudos to obligation and shame it’s often broken down into a continuum, from least autonomous (least internally motivated) to most.

i. External motivation

This is the easiest to understand. If intrinsic motivation is on one end of the spectrum, this is close to the other end (technically the opposite end is complete lack of motivation). External is often used synonymously with extrinsic, but it’s actually more limited. It encompasses rewards, recognition, threats, demands and so on. If an employee says they’re only working for the money, they are externally motivated.

  • Example: An IT technician has no desire to fix a problem, but does it solely for the bonus promised. Or a person who does a short course that’s a prerequisite for a promotion.

ii. Introjected regulation

This is more complicated since it’s internal, which makes it easy to confuse with intrinsic motivation. If you are doing something out of a negative emotional or ego-driven such as a desire for approval or a fear of guilt, that’s introjected regulation. Though the need is internal, it’s still extrinsic because the thing you’re aiming at is ultimately located outside yourself and the task.

  • Example: An employee who works late every night because they don’t want to look bad. A more extreme example would be the person who becomes and remains a doctor to match their parents’ expectations, even though it makes them miserable.

iii. Identified regulation

One step further away from external motivation. Here, even more of what you’re seeking is located internally. The person identifies the work as valuable, but still takes no joy – or has no particular interest – in it. To some extent, if introjected regulation is about avoiding low self-worth (“I don’t want to be terrible”), identified regulation is about achieving high self-worth (“I want to be great”).

  • Example: An HR professional who gets an MBA because they feel it’s important to their goal of being a CEO, even though they have no particular desire to study. Or someone who looks for a mentor because it’s wise, not because they feel they need one.

iv. Integrated regulation

This is even more of an autonomous motivation. The task has been more deeply synthesised with a person’s values. They don’t just identify that it will ultimately serve their interests, they believe the action itself is worthwhile – even if they take no joy or interest in it.

  • Example: Working for an employer because of its mission, not necessarily because the pay is good or the work enjoyable. Or doing extra work for a charity client whose cause you support. 

‘I wish I read more’

Still feeling like you don’t quite get the difference between all of these? So did I. The breakthrough came when I imagined a task many people say they’d like to do more of: reading. So here are the motivations for why people feel compelled to read the celebrated Herman Melville classic (though its critics would call it an effective snooze pill) Moby Dick

 Why you read itWhat you tell other people
ExternalYour mother is paying you $100 to read it. She’s testing you on it, so you can’t just lie.“My mum offered me 100 bucks to do it! Honestly? Not the easiest money I’ve ever made.”
Introjected You’re worried if you don’t finish it people will find you stupid and boring.(lying) “Of course I’ve read it. It’s very good. ‘Call me Ishmael’, and so on.”
IdentifiedIt’s on the reading list for your arts degree, and you want to get a high distinction average.“Yeah, I’m reading it for uni. But it’s not super relevant – I just want a grad position in advertising.”
IntegratedYou consider yourself an intellectual, and value the importance of reading the canon.“It wasn’t my favourite book, but I’m glad I read it. Personally, I prefer Hawthorne.”
IntrinsicYou love the prose and/or learning a whole bunch about whaling in the 19th Century.“A masterwork. The opening pages gave me goose pimples.”

More nuance

Though the extrinsic continuum presented above is from least autonomous to most autonomous, it’s not a spectrum from least healthy to most healthy. The most psychologically troubling motivation here is usually introjected regulation. 

Responding to the threat of being fired is a practical decision – you could just quit. An internalised threat that impacts your self-worth is harder to dismiss.

It’s also important to notice the nuance between the different types. It’s all too easy to see external motivation because everything has an outcome – a compliment, a criticism, a promotion, a dismissal – so what matters is the person’s ‘why’.

But given that people can be simultaneously motivated by many factors, why even bother labelling motivation? Well, research proves some forms of motivation are more powerful and beneficial than others. An employee whose main source of motivation is introjected regulation will not be as productive or engaged as one whose motivation is more in tune with their sense of self. What’s more, you can design work to foster the more useful motivations. 

So, what does the research say about motivations, and how do you do design around them? Those are topics for wholly separate articles.

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Workplace motivation: quick definitions to help you understand employees


A cursory (but hopefully helpful) look at different types of workplace motivation.

We all know why we work. We do so out of some combination of our needs and wants. Work gives us the resources to sustain and nourish our lives and the lives of our loved ones. It can also be enjoyable, inherently interesting and a worthy challenge. Most profoundly, it can give us purpose and contribute to our identity.

For anyone interested in managing people in a workplace, the consideration is less philosophical and more practical. Why people would want to work for you. What combination of factors have the most significant effect on your staff? Is it the pay? The flexible hours or the remote work you offer? Do you invest in their careers, and therefore make them feel obliged?

The answer is important because knowing it can contribute to business success. It will inform compensation policies, succession strategies, learning and development and so on. So the more sophisticated your understanding of motivation and the more you are able to distinguish between different types, the better.

But before we get into the key concepts underlying motivation it’s important to know that…

Unfortunately, you can’t ignore complexity

There are no secret codewords that will allow you to read your employees’ minds or categorise them neatly. Humans are complex and what motivates any individual is multi-faceted. For example, almost every employee is at least partially motivated by money – even as they are also loyal to the company, keen to advance their career and so on.

Motivations are also in flux. The worker who loves their job will quit for their children’s sake. The worker who phones it in just to get paid might become dedicated under the guidance of a more inspiring manager.

So instead of definite labels, we have a framework that is a small part of a bigger thing called self-determination theory. Like all frameworks, it’s flawed, argued over and being added to all the time. It’s not even close to encompassing the full truth of motivation, but it does grapple with some of its crucial principles.

Because of this, it’s better to use these ideas to look at single tasks rather the try and apply them to any person’s psychological makeup.

So, caveat in place, let’s begin. In the broadest sense, there are two types of motivation.

1. Intrinsic motivation

If you are intrinsically motivated you do the task because of the task; the nature of the work is reason enough to do it. It’s circular. Think of the artist who paints because they love painting, or the student who studies because the knowledge is its own reward.

Up front it’s important to say there is probably no person on earth who is 100 per cent intrinsically motivated to do their whole job. At least some of its tasks will not be enjoyable in and of themselves. The painter might love painting, but do they also love promoting their work and the bureaucracy of renting a studio?

Where ‘intrinsic’ does get definitionally confusing is around what constitutes ‘the work’. What if it’s not really the process of work you enjoy but the product that comes out of it? If joy comes from the thing you produce – the finished painting as opposed to the act of painting – is that truly intrinsic motivation?

There is at least some academic disagreement on this, but so long as the reward and goal is the work itself, and not something outside of it, let’s call it intrinsic. Otherwise we’ll go down a philosophical slippery slope and start asking if anything can be *truly* intrinsic – for what is ‘process’ and what is ‘product’?

So, for our purposes, an IT technician is intrinsically motivated regardless of whether who they love the process of solving problems or because they love arriving at a solution. 

2. Extrinsic motivation

Technically all motivation that isn’t intrinsic is extrinsic. But since that covers everything from cash and kudos to obligation and shame it’s often broken down into a continuum, from least autonomous (least internally motivated) to most.

i. External motivation

This is the easiest to understand. If intrinsic motivation is on one end of the spectrum, this is close to the other end (technically the opposite end is complete lack of motivation). External is often used synonymously with extrinsic, but it’s actually more limited. It encompasses rewards, recognition, threats, demands and so on. If an employee says they’re only working for the money, they are externally motivated.

  • Example: An IT technician has no desire to fix a problem, but does it solely for the bonus promised. Or a person who does a short course that’s a prerequisite for a promotion.

ii. Introjected regulation

This is more complicated since it’s internal, which makes it easy to confuse with intrinsic motivation. If you are doing something out of a negative emotional or ego-driven such as a desire for approval or a fear of guilt, that’s introjected regulation. Though the need is internal, it’s still extrinsic because the thing you’re aiming at is ultimately located outside yourself and the task.

  • Example: An employee who works late every night because they don’t want to look bad. A more extreme example would be the person who becomes and remains a doctor to match their parents’ expectations, even though it makes them miserable.

iii. Identified regulation

One step further away from external motivation. Here, even more of what you’re seeking is located internally. The person identifies the work as valuable, but still takes no joy – or has no particular interest – in it. To some extent, if introjected regulation is about avoiding low self-worth (“I don’t want to be terrible”), identified regulation is about achieving high self-worth (“I want to be great”).

  • Example: An HR professional who gets an MBA because they feel it’s important to their goal of being a CEO, even though they have no particular desire to study. Or someone who looks for a mentor because it’s wise, not because they feel they need one.

iv. Integrated regulation

This is even more of an autonomous motivation. The task has been more deeply synthesised with a person’s values. They don’t just identify that it will ultimately serve their interests, they believe the action itself is worthwhile – even if they take no joy or interest in it.

  • Example: Working for an employer because of its mission, not necessarily because the pay is good or the work enjoyable. Or doing extra work for a charity client whose cause you support. 

‘I wish I read more’

Still feeling like you don’t quite get the difference between all of these? So did I. The breakthrough came when I imagined a task many people say they’d like to do more of: reading. So here are the motivations for why people feel compelled to read the celebrated Herman Melville classic (though its critics would call it an effective snooze pill) Moby Dick

 Why you read itWhat you tell other people
ExternalYour mother is paying you $100 to read it. She’s testing you on it, so you can’t just lie.“My mum offered me 100 bucks to do it! Honestly? Not the easiest money I’ve ever made.”
Introjected You’re worried if you don’t finish it people will find you stupid and boring.(lying) “Of course I’ve read it. It’s very good. ‘Call me Ishmael’, and so on.”
IdentifiedIt’s on the reading list for your arts degree, and you want to get a high distinction average.“Yeah, I’m reading it for uni. But it’s not super relevant – I just want a grad position in advertising.”
IntegratedYou consider yourself an intellectual, and value the importance of reading the canon.“It wasn’t my favourite book, but I’m glad I read it. Personally, I prefer Hawthorne.”
IntrinsicYou love the prose and/or learning a whole bunch about whaling in the 19th Century.“A masterwork. The opening pages gave me goose pimples.”

More nuance

Though the extrinsic continuum presented above is from least autonomous to most autonomous, it’s not a spectrum from least healthy to most healthy. The most psychologically troubling motivation here is usually introjected regulation. 

Responding to the threat of being fired is a practical decision – you could just quit. An internalised threat that impacts your self-worth is harder to dismiss.

It’s also important to notice the nuance between the different types. It’s all too easy to see external motivation because everything has an outcome – a compliment, a criticism, a promotion, a dismissal – so what matters is the person’s ‘why’.

But given that people can be simultaneously motivated by many factors, why even bother labelling motivation? Well, research proves some forms of motivation are more powerful and beneficial than others. An employee whose main source of motivation is introjected regulation will not be as productive or engaged as one whose motivation is more in tune with their sense of self. What’s more, you can design work to foster the more useful motivations. 

So, what does the research say about motivations, and how do you do design around them? Those are topics for wholly separate articles.

Leave a reply

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  Subscribe to receive comments  
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More on HRM