Stress Management, Well-being and Self-Care

Self-Determination Theory Part 4. What’s the difference between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation?

Self-Determination Theory Part 4. What’s the difference between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation?

by James Porter March 14, 2023

This blog is part 4 of a 4-part series on Self-determination theory which I first learned about from Dr. Scott Rigby at a wellness conference. In last week’s installment we talked about the difference between high-quality and low-quality motivation and how surprisingly, pay raises and certain incentives fall into the category of low-quality motivators. Giving workers more control over what they do and a sense of mastery over how they do it, fall into the category of high-quality motivators. This week we are going to discuss the difference between extrinsic (low quality) motivation and intrinsic (high quality) motivation.

Extrinsic motivators include pay raises, bonuses, pressure from your boss and even internal pressure you apply to yourself. Intrinsic motivators are the conditions that employers create that spawn the three basic elements of Self-determination theory: Autonomy, Relatedness and Mastery.

Autonomy is about giving employees more control over how they spend their time. (Google allows workers one day a week, to work on projects unrelated to what they do. This is how self-driving cars were created.) Relatedness is the feeling that what employees do at work matters to both their boss and their team or department. And Mastery is about giving workers challenging assignments that promote learning and growth. 

No one, in my opinion, has done a better job of summarizing the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation than Dr. Michelle Segar of The University of Michigan. In her book, NO SWEAT she talks about “finding the right why.” While her focus is primarily on exercise and wellness, her model of finding the right why lines up perfectly with Dr. Scott Rigby’s work on Self-Determination Theory. (See previous blogs.)

When we talk about exercising to lose weight, or for better health, or even to avoid some medical condition 20 years down the road, according to Dr. Segar, the exercise is going to feel like a chore. It doesn’t motivate us long term. That’s exactly how Dr. Rigby talks about the typical incentives of salary and bonuses at work. It makes work feel like a chore. Something you hate to do, but you do it for the money. That approach isn’t going to build engagement with workers, and research shows you will have to pay more to get someone to work in a company like that, than for a company who really understands how to find the right whys.

Dr. Michelle Segar cycle of failure

Dr. Michelle Segar cycle of motivation

When you find the right whys for exercising, you get rewarded INTRINSICALLY with fun, increased energy, focus, lifted mood and connection with others.  (As you can see in the lower diagram above.) These immediate rewards lead to success, whereas the wrong whys – at least in the case of exercising – almost always lead to failure. (See top diagram.) What we apply to motivating people to want to exercise can also be applied to INTRINSICALLY motivating employees to want to come to work. All the benefits that apply to exercise also apply to work.

From my stress management perspective, a lot of the benefits of Self-determination Theory and finding the right why has to do with lowering stress in the workplace.

As Dr. Rigby writes in his journal article entitled: , “Self-Determination Theory in Human Resource Development: New Developments and Practical Considerations,”   “When the most salient motivator for work is the amount of compensation one receives, motivational quality tends to be lower along with loyalty, performance and well-being in the workplace.” But when the motivation is driven by “employee needs, values and interests…employees are committed to doing work-related tasks well and as a result derive greater satisfaction, vitality and wellness.”

Rigby’s words seem to overlap perfectly with the above graphics as we translate finding the right why’s for exercising into finding the right why’s for coming to work every day. As we have said throughout this four-part series motivating employees is not rocket science. Giving workers more autonomy, giving them work that allows them to expand and grow, all with the help of a supportive boss, are all examples of what the right whys would look like in a corporate setting.

These of course are all examples of intrinsic rewards vs. extrinsic rewards. Ironically, intrinsic rewards which are truly more powerful than extrinsic, and cost the employer almost nothing to put in place are so rarely applied to the workplace. Why this is so will be the subject of future blogs.james

James Porter
James Porter