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The Leader Toolbox: How to (Create the Conditions to) Motivate your Employees

Updated: Feb 5, 2023

When asked how to motivate others, most people envision a motivational speaker- someone who temporarily rouses a crowd by speaking forcefully and passionately about a particular topic. The topic itself is irrelevant, as it is not the topic that gets the crowd excited. Instead, the enthusiastic presentation of the speaker and the other environmental stimuli (e.g., setup of the room, dramatic music, other eager members of the crowd) trigger the individual's emotional responses - what they perceive as motivation. Unfortunately, this is manipulation, not motivation. There is a reason the effects of this style of “motivation” are temporary and do not result in long-term behavior change. True motivation comes from within.

Behavior is fueled by two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is defined as the motivation to perform an activity for its own sake in order to experience the pleasure and satisfaction inherent to the activity itself. For example, someone who is intrinsically motivated will work on a task because the task itself is rewarding. Intrinsic motivators include psychological states such as drive, purpose, self-fulfillment, joy, etc. Top-performing employees perform well because they are intrinsically motivated to do so. In other words, they are fulfilled by the job itself. The subsequent paycheck is simply an added bonus but does not fuel their desire to perform well.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is focused more on the consequences of the activity rather than the activity itself. For example, someone who is extrinsically motivated will exhibit a behavior because of the consequences of that behavior. Examples include doing a task to avoid punishment or to receive a reward. Extrinsic motivators (e.g., docking someone’s pay for being late) are effective for short-term compliance but are rarely responsible for long-term, self-driving behavior.

Of the two types of motivation, intrinsic motivators are associated with sustained and meaningful behavior change. Intrinsic motivation requires three innate, psychological needs:


Humans (especially Americans) crave freedom and independence. A quick Google Image search of “people disobeying signs” will yield thousands of pictures of people purposely and humorously breaking the rules simply because they were told not to. This is also known as psychological reactance. When leaders micromanage their employees’ work, they are unknowingly creating anti-bodies against their own priorities. In other words, they are cultivating psychological reactance, which leads to resentment and disengagement. Leaders see the greatest results when they coach their employees by having deliberate and collaborative discussions regarding how an employee's goals can align with the leader’s overall intent.

Competence (Mastery)

Humans are also naturally goal-oriented creatures. We get excited about progress, whether in a professional or personal sense. Employees who feel stagnant, or like they have hit their developmental ceiling, are more likely to look for employment elsewhere. The healthiest of workplace cultures involve employees who agree that someone at their work is invested in their professional development. Leaders who have an understanding of their employees’ professional goals and tailor the environment to reasonably facilitate growth have employees who are highly satisfied with their work and are more likely to stick around.


In addition to being independence-craving and goal-oriented, people are social beings. The behavior of others strongly influences us. This is why savvy bar musicians put their own money in tip jars to prevent them from appearing empty; patrons are more likely to tip if they believe others have also done so. Organizations, as we know, are made up of multiple individuals. Those who feel more connected with their co-workers feel more responsibility and commitment to the efforts of the team. Leaders who facilitate an environment in which employees feel like contributing members of the team will help to develop a culture of shared ownership that is both cohesive and self-policing.

By creating the conditions for maximum employee autonomy, competence, and feelings of relatedness, leaders are cultivating intrinsically motivated employees. As a result, their employees are more likely to engage in work-related activities because they genuinely want to rather than feeling coerced into doing so; thus, resulting in greater effort and buy-in. In addition, intrinsically motivated employees are happy and productive employees. Such organizational practices will quickly develop into a culture of collective ownership among its members that results in a high-functioning and healthy environment.

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