What Science Tells Us About Motivating Your Team

What Science Tells Us About Motivating Your Team

Keeping a team motivated is the one of the most important aspects of a leader’s job. It’s also one of the most misunderstood aspects of a leader’s job. Many organizations still equate “motivating your team” with “designing the right incentives.” But more than four decades of research into self-determination theory have revealed the limits of these types of extrinsic motivators and offers a wealth of insight into intrinsic motivation and how leaders can leverage it.

But even when expanding their perspective on motivation, many leaders still suffer from the misunderstanding of a binary choice between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. In reality, self-determination theory research suggests that motivation is better thought of as a spectrum with four points along the way: extrinsic, introjected, identified, and intrinsic.

In this article, we’ll outline these four forms of motivation and offer a glimpse at how to leverage the most overlooked form when motivating your team.

Four Forms Of Motivation

1. Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation refers to the external factors that drive individuals to take certain actions or adopt specific behaviors, whether it involves completing a task or achieving a personal objective. These external influences can take the form of rewards, promotions, prizes, and so on. Extrinsic motivation can work well in the short-term when the tasks being incentivized are clear and individuals know how to achieve them. However, extrinsic motivation often falls short in terms of providing genuine meaning. The impact of reward-based motivation tends to be inconsistent and frequently ineffective. In addition, when the path towards completion is unclear—extrinsic motivation tends to fall apart.

2. Introjected Motivation

Introjected motivation can be understood as an internalized form of motivation, similar to intrinsic motivation. However, it refers to a specific a sense of pressure to perform in order to receive validation or approval from significant individuals, such as bosses or influential colleagues. This type of motivation is more prevalent than commonly realized and impacts individuals in two distinct ways. First, individuals can be motivated to perform tasks to bolster their feeling of self-worth (introjected approach). Second, individuals can be motivated to perform tasks to avoid feelings of failure or diminished self-worth (introjected avoidance).

However, both forms of introjected motivation are difficult to sustain. In addition, introjected avoidance in particular can have long-term harmful effects—since it’s basically indistinguishable from emotional manipulation.

3. Identified Motivation

Identified motivation pertains to a type of motivation where individuals recognize or acknowledge the necessity of performing or completing a task, yet they have not yet taken action to fulfill this need. Identified motivation is what is felt when people may not be motivated to do a task but know that doing it is important. It is a potent form of motivation that primes individuals for action. And is especially powerful in a work context because relying on others to become motivated is generally impractical in most situations.

However, this form motivation is also quite underutilized because it requires connecting the work of an individual or team to something important enough to create a feeling of identified motivation. While most organizations have a mission or purpose statement—connecting specific tasks to that mission or purpose is often overlooked.

4. Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation refers to internal drives that are subjective in nature, emerging from actions that align with personal values or bring pleasure in performing a task. It is experienced in the present moment when individuals engage in activities they find enjoyable or meaningful.

However, intrinsic motivation is subjective and can be challenging to manage and harness effectively, since so much depends on the specific person and what satisfies them. That is why, despite studies suggesting intrinsic rewards have a stronger motivating effect compared to extrinsic ones, there is no universally applicable method or approach.

How To Motivate Your Team

Looking at the entire spectrum of motivation, it’s pretty apparent that identified motivation is both powerful and underutilized for motivating your team. Intrinsic motivation is great, but it’s not possible all of the time. Some tasks are vital, just not enjoyable. When that is the case, identified motivation can become the motivator of choice. And there’s three specific ways to leverage identified motivation.

Provide Purpose

The first way to motivate your team through identified motivation is to provide purpose. Ultimately for introjected motivation to work, people have to feel the tasks they’ve been assigned are important. And the most effective way to help them feel that way is to demonstrate how they serve a bigger purpose. More specifically, connecting the team’s effort to a “prosocial purpose.” Identified motivation is most powerful when the tasks needing completion are seen as tasks that promote or protect the well-being of others (sometimes also called prosocial motivation). For leaders, this means answering the question “Who is served by the work that we do?” and then reminding the team of that answer on a regular basis.

Connect to Values

The second way to motivate your team through identified motivation is to connect to values. Once purpose is established, it’s important to make the shared values that undergird that purpose salient. You’re working for something specific in the world—because you share a certain set of values that dictate the change you’re working for. Those shared values can be a powerful way to leverage identified motivation when discussing seemingly unimportant tasks. Those tasks may not be enjoyable, but they’re critical to achieve the purpose and hence critical to staying aligned with shared values.

Add Autonomy

The third way to motivate your team through identified motivation is to add autonomy. For tasks that don’t have a specific set of instructions—and for tasks that are not intrinsically motivating—allowing people to have a say in the way they achieve the task can be a powerful way to motivate them. Autonomy is a powerful motivator not only because it allows individuals to adjust their tasks into ways they may find enjoyable, but also because it eliminates the feeling of manipulation that people may have experienced when they’ve felt introjected motivation in the past.

Motivating your team can be tricky—much of the common practice in organizations seeks to leverage less powerful, more difficult forms of motivation. But by focusing on intrinsic and identified motivation, you can give your team a renewed zeal and help them do their best work ever.





About the author

David Burkus is an organizational psychologist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of five books on leadership and teamwork.

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