What Motivates Us To Work? - RND Talents


More information about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

What Motivates Us To Work?

Do you like your job or are you there just for the money?

It’s an honest question that people seem to be asking themselves more than ever.

There’s no shameful answer.

Having a passion for what you do and making a living out of it is a rarity.

We tend to think some people are born under a lucky star and they simply know what their purpose is.

They go through life doing something they love and getting paid handsomely for it.

These people don’t lose their motivation to work since they enjoy working.


Not really.

Motivation is way more complicated than that.

There are countless studies on the topic of workplace motivation and we’re still unclear on lots of things.

Before we can understand what motivates us to work, we must first learn what drives us to take any action.

In this article, we’ll cover two opposing types of motivation – intrinsic and extrinsic – and see how they influence each other in the workplace.

Intrinsic Motivation

Put simply intrinsic motivation comes from within and it drives action without any tangible external rewards.

In other words, you’re doing something because it feels satisfying.

For example, if you’ve ever written a short story or a drawn picture that no one has seen or complimented, you’ve felt what intrinsic motivation is. It’s that sweet feeling of doing something just for the act itself. As you perform the activity, you’re learning, growing and exploring your horizons.

It’s an awesome feeling.

Of course, you do receive rewards like emotional satisfaction and a sense of progress.

However, these benefits come from within so the motivation is still intrinsic.

Extrinsic Motivation

As you’ve probably guessed by now, extrinsic motivation is prompted by external rewards – money, fame, good grades, etc.

That’s also what most employers offer – material rewards for doing your job.

We’re primed to expect rewards from a young age. Eating our dessert after our vegetables, studying to get a good grade or more allowance – it’s all extrinsic motivation and we know what it feels like.

That’s not to say that intrinsic motivation is better and all tangible rewards are simply means of manipulation.

In lots of cases, extrinsic motivation is the only way to make smarter decisions in life. For example, working out a couple of times a week and keeping a balanced diet is terrific for your health. That said most people that get into this lifestyle do so because they want to look better and gain approval from others. 

In fact, a 2009 field experiment titled “Incentives to Exercise” found out that university students who had received incentives attended the gym way more frequently than others who hadn’t.

Extrinsic motivation can be extremely beneficial for achieving personal or professional goals.

Workplace Motivation or Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

So, where does workplace motivation fit into all this?

Extrinsic motivation always lives in the workplace – salary, benefits, coworker approval, social status and so on. The whole concept of a job can’t exist without extrinsic rewards.

Intrinsic motivation is a more complex element in the workplace.

At first glance doing what you love (intrinsic motivation) and getting paid for it (extrinsic motivation) sounds lovely. Like Mark Twain said, “Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

There is one problem with this statement, however – the so-called Motivation Crowding Theory. The theory suggests that sometimes offering extrinsic incentives to perform an activity can reduce intrinsic motivation for that activity. There are multiple studies of the crowding out effect dating back to the 1970s.

The results are mixed, but the crowding out phenomenon definitely exists and can be seen in different scenarios.

Some studies have looked at how children react when they’re rewarded for playing with their toys. In some cases, when children started receiving rewards for playing with toys (which they previously played with for fun) their desire to play with those same toys without a prize lowered significantly.

It’s not entirely known why this happens, but there are a couple of possible explanations.

First, taking a reward for an activity can make us feel like we’re giving away part of our autonomy. In other words, we’re no longer doing something because we like it but because someone else wants us to do it. This is an obvious blow to our ego.

Another theory is that when we take the reward, we feel sort of bribed which takes away from the “pure” feeling of doing something just for the pleasure of it.

One of the most popular explanations for motivation crowding is the overjustification effect. In practice, the overjustification effect looks like this: you perform an unrewarded activity. At one point, you start receiving tangible rewards. These rewards undermine your pre-existing intrinsic motivation to the point where it disappears forever and the only way to keep motivated is to continuously receive external rewards.

Put simply, overjustification can lead to extrinsic rewards being the only possible source of motivation for a specific activity.

As we talked about in our article about salary, perks, benefits and incentives in the tech sector money is still the first and most crucial factor for making job-related decisions. People obviously don’t work for free.

Also, if the crowding out theory could be applied to each scenario, no one would have intrinsic motivation to work, which is obviously not true.

In the workplace, there is one more element to this equation – job satisfaction.

Classic methods to increase job satisfaction include a higher salary, more bonuses, more time off, remote working and other extrinsic rewards.

A 2011 research titled “Motivation, pay satisfaction, and job satisfaction of front-line employees” provides us with some interesting insights regarding job satisfaction and the different types of motivation. Well-planned work enhancement programs triggered an increase in intrinsic motivation. Pay fairness and goal clarity were also found to be crucial elements that increase motivation as a whole tremendously.

Pay fairness and goal clarity are the most tricky factors to get right. They both depend on a person’s subjective understanding of what’s fair and what’s not.

The study also showed that pay satisfaction and intrinsic motivation are positively correlated. At the same time, pay satisfaction had the most significant impact on job satisfaction.

There was even some evidence that intrinsic motivation started to crowd out extrinsic motivation. Also, pay satisfaction and extrinsic motivation seemed to be negatively correlated.

Obviously, tangible rewards like salary and bonuses are a must, but more subtle benefits like linking employee performance to company results can impact motivation just as much.


A lot more research needs to be conducted on pay satisfaction, job satisfaction, extrinsic and intrinsic motivation.

We currently know only a little bit about how our workplace motivation works.

As we gain deeper knowledge, employers can leverage established psychological models to increase performance and employees can understand how to keep motivated and avoid burnout.

For now, the most practical advice for employers regarding workplace motivation is to pay employees well, define their tasks clearly and link individual results to department and company goals.