top of page
  • Writer's pictureIvan Palomino

What Makes You Tick? Exploring the Psychology of Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic Motivation at work

Motivation plays a critical role in employee engagement, productivity, and performance. Understanding the dynamics of intrinsic motivation is essential for fostering a workplace that promotes enthusiasm and commitment. This article is about the psychology of intrinsic motivation, how it contrasts with extrinsic motivation and its implications in the workplace.

What is Intrinsic Motivation from the Psychology Perspective?

Intrinsic motivation refers to performing an activity for the inherent enjoyment or satisfaction derived from the activity itself, rather than for some separable outcome. This form of motivation is fueled by internal desires rather than external rewards or pressures.

The Theoretical Foundation: Self-Determination Theory

Developed by researchers Ryan and Deci, the concept of intrinsic motivation is a cornerstone of the Self-Determination Theory. This theory challenges traditional behaviorist views that external incentives are the primary means of motivating people. Instead, it highlights the significant impact of personal interest and satisfaction in driving performance. Notably, the research indicates that external rewards might even diminish intrinsic interest in tasks.

Intrinsic Motivation Defined

"Intrinsic motivation is the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external products, pressures, or rewards."

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation: Understanding the Differences

It's important to distinguish between the two primary types of motivation, which influence behavior in different ways.

Extrinsic Motivation

This type of motivation is driven by external factors such as rewards or avoidance of negative outcomes. It can be influenced by basic needs (like food or shelter) or secondary needs (such as approval or status). While extrinsic motivation is effective, it might not sustain engagement and commitment over the long term.

Intrinsic Motivation

In contrast, intrinsic motivation arises from within the individual. It is spurred by an interest in the activity itself or a personal alignment with the task. Key characteristics of intrinsic motivation include:

  • Derived from internal rewards, such as personal growth or enjoyment.

  • More likely to result in sustained performance, persistence, and higher employee satisfaction.

How Intrinsic Motivation Improves the Workplace Dynamic

In the professional environment, intrinsic motivation plays a pivotal role in how employees engage with their roles and responsibilities.

The Role of Intrinsic Motivation in Employee Engagement

Intrinsically motivated employees are not solely driven by external rewards like bonuses or fear of job loss. Instead, they find motivation in the challenges, learning opportunities, and the satisfaction derived from accomplishing work that resonates with their personal values and goals. This leads to:

  • Increased enthusiasm for challenging tasks.

  • Greater innovation and creativity.

  • Higher levels of professional development and skill acquisition.

Impact on Long-term Goals and Persistence

Research indicates that intrinsic motivation is crucial for the pursuit of long-term goals. This form of motivation satisfies psychological needs for autonomy and competence, creating a positive feedback loop that enhances perseverance and commitment.

Practical Examples of Intrinsic Motivation in Action

To illustrate the concept, here are several examples of intrinsic motivation at work:

  • Collaborating with colleagues to enhance interpersonal relationships.

  • Engaging in professional development activities for personal and professional growth.

  • Participating in innovative projects like hackathons for the joy of creativity and problem-solving.

  • Setting personal performance targets to fulfill a sense of achievement.

The Three Pillars of Intrinsic Motivation: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose

Understanding these three key components can help managers foster a more motivating and engaging work environment.


Employees are often more motivated when they have the freedom to choose how and when they accomplish their tasks. This sense of control can enhance their engagement and satisfaction.


This aspect involves the desire to improve skills and achieve a high level of competence. Employees driven by mastery seek to excel in their roles for the intrinsic satisfaction of being skilled and knowledgeable.


When employees perceive their work as contributing to a meaningful goal, their motivation to perform well increases significantly. Aligning company objectives with personal values can amplify this effect.

Strategies to Enhance Intrinsic Motivation in the Workplace

To tap into the power of intrinsic motivation, managers can adopt several strategies:

  • Leading vs. Managing: Inspire and connect employees' personal values with their work.

  • Empowerment: Provide autonomy and encourage ownership of tasks and outcomes.

  • Skill Development: Promote continuous learning and mastery of professional skills.

  • Trust and Integrity: Build a trustworthy environment where employees feel safe to express ideas and take risks.

  • Work Environment: Ensure a supportive and comfortable physical and psychological workplace.

Leveraging the Psychology behind Intrinsic Motivation can Bring Organizational Success

Intrinsic motivation is not just a personal trait but a powerful tool that managers can harness to enhance employee performance and organizational health. By understanding and implementing strategies that foster an intrinsically motivated workforce, companies can achieve higher levels of engagement, productivity, and satisfaction, leading to sustained success and growth.


Bonus: Watch Tony Martignetti on How to Inspire People in Times of Cultural Change


bottom of page