What is the Difference Between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation?

Why do we do the things we do? What motivates us to get up in the morning, go on a run (or not), head to work, and crush it before going home? 

Think about those great days when you felt passionate and excited to get things on your to-do list done. And those other days when all you wanted to do was stay in bed and catch up on some sleep.

Motivation is usually the driving force behind how we behave. And there are different ways of looking at motivation. There’s intrinsic motivation, which comes from within, and extrinsic motivation, which comes from an outside source.

Understanding the difference between the two types of motivation can give you valuable insight into how people work, make decisions, and pursue their goals. That can be incredibly useful when managing a team of employees and understanding your company’s workforce.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation comes from inside an individual. When someone is intrinsically motivated to do something, they do it because it’s personally rewarding. Doing something for its own sake, essentially, is the reward.

Let’s say you enjoy reading books, playing team sports with friends, or trying new cooking recipes every once in awhile. Because you find those activities enjoyable and rewarding, you’re intrinsically motivated to do them.

In the workplace, let’s say you get a thrill by solving a big problem. Or you thrive on the healthy stress of having many complex tasks to do, and you feel a rush every time you complete one and check it off your list. That means you’re intrinsically motivated.

What is extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation comes from a force other than the individual. When someone is extrinsically motivated to perform a task, they do it because they’re either earning a reward or avoiding punishment. Compared to intrinsic motivation, you’re doing something in order to win, or to avoid negative consequences.

For example, maybe you play team sports because you love competing and winning awards. Or you cook dinner every night so you can receive praise from your partner or roommate. The outcome of doing these activities is motivating you to complete them, not the activities themselves.

At work, you’re extrinsically motivated if you strive to obtain goals set by yourself or your manager. Or, you complete tasks in order to avoid getting in trouble. You might work so that your supervisor will recognize your achievements, or so you can get a promotion and move up. These are all examples of extrinsic motivation.

Which is better?

At face value it might seem that intrinsic motivation is “better.” Isn’t it more noble and humble to do things for their own sake, rather than winning or receiving praise?

In an ideal world, it may be a lot easier to get things done if we didn’t need an external force to motivate us. But that’s not realistic. And extrinsic motivation isn’t “bad.” In fact, extrinsic motivation can push you to complete a task that you don’t want to.

Plus, you can use both forms of motivation at the same time. You might enjoy playing a team sport with friends because it makes you feel good, but you also love the rush of winning, especially when you’ve been practicing hard.

The benefits of intrinsic motivation in the workplace

Though it comes from within, giving and receiving praise and positive feedback can actually boost your intrinsic motivation. Sincere, genuine feedback can promote intrinsic motivation when it’s given appropriately.

If you manage employees who are intrinsically motivated, be sure to give praise when it’s due. Constantly telling your team “good job!” when they complete expected tasks lessens the value of your praise. It’s also pretty vague. Did they do a good job because they did something on time, worked together on a project, or simply completed the work? Give specific, intentional praise to those who are intrinsically motivated, which is much more satisfying.

Of course, you don’t have to be a manager to dole out praise yourself. Give your leaders positive feedback of your own. Compliment and congratulate coworkers when they achieve their goals.

The benefits of extrinsic motivation in the workplace

Extrinsic motivation is easy to identify in the workplace, probably because companies traditionally use it to motivate their employees: salary raises, financial bonuses, promotions, accrued vacation time, and so on. These types of rewards are outside of the work you do itself.

There’s nothing wrong with working in order to achieve these rewards. No one loves every single aspect of their job; there are probably a few tasks that you don’t like to do. But you do them anyway.

For example, maybe you don’t like making calls to clients because you prefer speaking with them through email or video chat. However, you know that your manager uses the number of calls completed in a week as a performance metric. So you do it anyway because your manager likes to reward the employee on their team who makes the most number of calls. Despite your lack of interest in the task, you’ll do it because your manager’s praise and approval is a source of extrinsic motivation.

Combining both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

Managers can use a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to push their employees and achieve goals. Imagine that you’re leading a team of intrinsically and extrinsically motivated employees on a project. You can intrinsically motivate your team members by recognizing their ideas and acknowledging the hard work they’re doing. You’re not focusing on the completion of the project, but rather the work they’re doing to complete the project itself. Remember that intrinsically motivated people do something for the sake of it, not for the outcome.

At the same time, you can also extrinsically motivate your team members by setting clear goals from the get-go and rewarding them for reaching those goals. A reward may be small, such as taking them out to lunch or organizing a social activity after work hours, but it can spur your extrinsically motivated employees to work harder. Using both forms of motivation simultaneously can drive all of your employees to succeed, no matter how they’re personally motivated.