Humans have grown to be curious, active, and deeply social beings, driven by intrinsic tendencies to understand and master both our inner and outer worlds (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
Such intrinsic motivation is not a given; it is conditional on satisfying feelings of competence, autonomy, and relatedness.
Finding new and changing existing environments to align with our basic psychological needs can maintain and sustain our motivation and allow us to flourish (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
This article explores how to build such motivation using techniques and strategies to realize our human capacities and talents.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients create actionable goals and master techniques to create lasting behavior change.
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How to Foster Intrinsic Motivation 101
To persist at anything, we need mechanisms in the brain that initiate and maintain effort. Without them, we cannot start or sustain action (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
Yet, according to Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, the variation in motivation we see across individuals is not found in such psychological mechanisms, but rather in sociocultural conditions.
Deci and Ryan’s (2008) Self-Determination Theory (SDT) of motivation assumes that “humans are by nature active and self-motivated, curious and interested, vital and eager to succeed because success itself is personally satisfying and rewarding.”
However, circumstances and environments can leave us “alienated and mechanized, or passive and disaffected” (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
But we can change them for better ones.
Intrinsic motivation involves doing something because it is both interesting and deeply satisfying. We perform such activities for the positive feelings they create, and they typically lead to optimal performances (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
Extrinsic motivation involves engaging in an activity because it leads to a tangible reward or avoids punishment.
Studies have consistently shown that intrinsic motivation leads to increased persistence, greater psychological wellbeing, and enhanced performance (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
And the good news is that we can develop it.
Fostering perceptions of competence, autonomy, and relatedness to others supports people’s intrinsic motivation and behavior. Indeed, satisfying these three basic and universal psychological needs promotes optimal motivation and leads to better psychological, behavioral, and developmental outcomes (Deci & Ryan, 2000).
Increased autonomy – having the perception of control over what we do – as opposed to a lack of control is important in achieving intrinsic goals in all areas of our lives. Indeed, it has also been consistently proven to increase psychological health in Eastern and Western cultures, education, workplaces, home, and sports (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
5 Foolproof Methods and Strategies
1. Satisfying our basic psychological needs
Susan Fowler (2019) describes the three basic psychological needs recognized by the SDT as “foundational to all human beings and our ability to flourish.”
Satisfying each one leads to engaged, passionate individuals doing high-quality work in any domain.
Increased intrinsic motivation can be encouraged by building environments that promote:
- Autonomy – people need to believe they have choices.
- Have a say in what they are doing.
- Frame goals as being essential to individual success.
- Let people choose to perform rather than being pressured to deliver.
- Relatedness – people need to deepen their connections with others.
- Identify how people feel regarding what they do.
- Encourage people to develop their values while working.
- Connect their work to a higher cause (political, moral, spiritual, or corporate).
- Competence – people need to have the right skills and the opportunity to show them.
- Make resources available for learning.
- Set learning goals rather than result-oriented goals
- Ask “how did you grow today and what do you need for tomorrow?” rather than “what did you achieve today?”
Such practices and environments are applicable in most contexts and should not be limited to the workplace.
2. Engage in great storytelling
Engaging people with a narrative can be motivating; creating a story around what they do encourages a sense of connection.
How we feel about our work is typically less about the activity and more about how we frame it. For example, are you a bricklayer merely putting one brick on top of another, or are you part of a team building a church?
Is the task mundane and pointless, or are you creating a better environment for others?
The medical student studying their anatomy books late on a Friday night is either preparing for an in-class test on Monday or readying themselves to save lives in a future hospital placement (Grenny, 2019). Perception is everything.
3. Find your one sentence
Most of us live a life of many goals with our time spread thinly across each one.
In his book, Drive, Daniel Pink (2018) challenges readers to regain focus and clarify their purpose.
He asks us to define a sentence that sums up our life.
To help, he offers two examples from U.S. Presidents:
- Abraham Lincoln’s sentence might be He preserved the Union and freed the slaves.
- Franklin Roosevelt’s might be He lifted us out of the Great Depression and helped us win the war.
Each day, ask yourself, Am I closer to my goals than I was the day before? What do I need to do tomorrow to move forward in the right direction?
4. A strategy for educators
While there are aspects of education that students will inevitably not find enjoyable, showering them with rewards is unlikely to be the answer.
Instead, to increase intrinsic motivation, we should engage children according to their basic psychological needs.
Pink (2018) suggests that in any teaching environment (school, home, youth group, etc.), content is more crucial than the volume of work, and we should ask ourselves:
- Am I providing students with a degree of autonomy regarding when and how they do their work?
- Is this task engaging, novel, and encouraging mastery (competence)?
Or, is it unthinking, bland, and learning by rote?
- Do the students understand the relevance or purpose of this piece of work?
For example, perhaps it leads to something further down the line or a larger piece of work within the class.
Set aside time for the child to develop their own problem or project to work on. This will give them the autonomy to work on something of their choosing.
5. Giving praise
We should be cautious regarding how we offer praise.
If we are not careful, praise becomes a series of “if you do X, then you will get Y reward” statements that can damage creativity and intrinsic motivation.
Instead, in her book Mindset, Carol Dweck (2017) says we should give praise with the following points in mind:
- Praise effort and strategy rather than being smart.
It is vital that children (and adult learners) are recognized for the challenges they take on and the effort they put in.
- Praise must be specific.
What has the individual done that deserves special attention?
- Praise in private.
Provide praise in a one-on-one encounter. After all, it is not a ceremony but a personal show of gratitude for what someone has done.
- Only praise when there is a good reason.
Do not praise everything; instead, recognize extra effort and be sincere.
Praise is a powerful tool for motivation, yet poorly handled, it can negate many of the positives.
9 Techniques to Use in Your Therapy Sessions
The following techniques can help to encourage perceptions of autonomy, relatedness, and competence and support positive outcomes in psychotherapy and behavioral change (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
- Motivational interviewing is a valuable counseling technique that helps patients overcome ambivalence.
- The therapeutic alliance between therapist and client has been shown to increase a sense of autonomy and encourage behavioral change.
- An internal frame of reference, encouraged through empathic and careful listening, can identify the client’s motivations and values, validate their curiosity, and develop reasons for change.
- A focus on feelings and emotions to understand the client’s perspective can identify those experiences that interfere with the satisfaction of needs while uncovering and addressing resistance to change.
- Taking an interest in the client shows engagement with their experiences and encourages feelings of relatedness.
- By maintaining authenticity and transparency, the therapist is perceived as honest, interested, and open, fostering feelings of relatedness in the client.
- It is crucial to focus on setting optimal challenges for the client, rather than unduly stressful, demanding, or even impossible ones.
- Offering relevant, rich, and informational feedback supports the perception of competence.
- Promoting internal evaluation of performance by the client helps them recognize gaps between their skills and mastery.
Tips & Questionnaires for Employees
A 2014 study by Deloitte found that 87% of Americans felt unable to give their full potential at work due to a lack of passion (Su, 2019).
So, how do you tackle a lack of intrinsic motivation in the workplace?
To improve motivation at work, we need a change in mindset. There are strong correlations between “believing in the mission, enjoying the job, and performing at a high level” (Su, 2019).
There are several techniques that leaders can adopt to encourage increased intrinsic motivation in their staff (Su, 2019; Bolino & Klotz, 2019):
- Servant leader mindset
A servant leader adopts a mindset where they serve their staff; putting their employees’ needs first and helping them develop.
Perhaps surprisingly, it takes strength as a manager to be in the “service of a larger vision, mission, or shared purpose beyond their own agenda or ego” (Su, 2019).
- Questions that can uncover people’s passion
Good managers provide opportunities for their staff to reflect on what drives them.
They ask their staff:
Before a piece of work:
- What excites you about the new project?
- How might you develop, learn, and grow with this new piece of work?
Once the work is complete:
- What were you most proud of?
- What was rewarding or meaningful?
- What aspect did you find most enjoyable and inspiring?
In annual reviews:
- What did you most enjoy working on over the past year and why?
- What would you like to get more involved in next year?
- Encourage work where passion and contribution meet
Identify where an employee’s passion meets what they can contribute to the team or organization. Also, recognize when it is time to move the employee to something new.
- Encourage citizenship behaviors
Provide employees with the opportunity to go beyond their (defined) role, helping out coworkers, taking on special assignments, and introducing new working practices.
- Understand employee motivation, engagement, and disengagement
Use questionnaires such as those included in our article Intrinsic Motivation in the Workplace to gain insight into the degree to which staff is intrinsically motivated and how engaged they are in what they are doing.
A Note on Using Rewards
While it is typical for parents to give their children rewards for studying well, and companies typically incentivize their staff for going the extra mile, extrinsic recognition can damage intrinsic motivation.
Research has shown that rewarding someone who is intrinsically motivated using extrinsic rewards, such as money or awards, can reduce intrinsic motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2008).
The unintended effect is that individuals lose interest in what they are doing, especially when the reward is contingent on successful performance.
Our 4 Favorite TED Talks
Watch some of these fascinating talks, backed up by science and research into motivation, to understand how to promote performance.
1. The puzzle of motivation
Author Daniel Pink gives an excellent talk on how incentives (especially financial ones) can have a negative, even demotivating, impact when people are engaged in solving complex problems.
Instead, feeling interested in what we do and having a sense of importance is crucial to motivation. By encouraging employees to be the best they can be at something while showing their relevance to the overall company, we can address the mismatch between what science knows and what business does.
2. The happy secret to better work
If you think that working hard and achieving success make you happy, you may have it the wrong way around.
In Shawn Achor’s hilarious video, he explores how being happy makes us productive, more intelligent, creative, and bursting with energy.
He suggests that by adjusting organizational culture and focusing on positivity, we can leverage what he calls the “happiness advantage” and improve personal and business outcomes.
3. How motivation can fix public systems
Abhishek Gopalka’s wonderful talk on motivating change in the public sector explores how to improve what is fundamentally broken.
Through Gopalka’s work with India’s public health system, he learned how to use accountability to the citizen to trigger motivation and fix the system.
It worked. Following a series of promises made to patients, failure was no longer an option.
4. What makes us feel good about our work
Dan Ariely suggests that while happiness is precious, we flourish most when we have a sense of purpose and see progression in what we do.
While salary is important, research shows it is not sufficient to motivate employees.
According to Dan, it is increasingly crucial that organizations set up environments where work feels more meaningful and workers feel increasingly invested and care more about what they do.
4 Books on the Topic
There are many books available about motivation; we have chosen some of our favorites.
They are all evidence based and focus on the realities of the environment in which they are relevant.
1. Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness – Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci
Written by the creators of the Self-Determination Theory, this book synthesizes over four decades of research into human motivation.
The text stands as perhaps the ultimate guide to understanding the essence of motivation behind our growth and wellbeing and the psychological needs upon which it is based.
Find the book on Amazon.
2. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper Perennial Modern Classics) – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
This book is a beautifully written classic in psychological literature. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi takes us on a journey through the science and research of flow and offers a potential path for ongoing motivation.
The many anecdotes and stories included increase readability and add color and depth to the psychological insights.
Find the book on Amazon.
3. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us – Daniel H. Pink
Bestselling author Daniel Pink states the case for motivating people through the need to take control of our lives, create and learn, and make things better for ourselves and the world.
Packed full of techniques for fostering intrinsic motivation in education, family, and workplace environments, this is a valuable resource for any individual or counselor.
Find the book on Amazon.
4. HBR Guide to Motivating People (HBR Guide Series) – Harvard Business Review
Containing 28 chapters, this easy-to-read, insightful book tells us what to do and what not to do to create organizational cultures to foster motivation.
The author(s) of each chapter offer different yet complementary advice, giving practical examples of organizational changes that can have the most significant positive impact.
Find the book on Amazon.
PositivePsychology.com’s Relevant Resources
We have many motivation tools and techniques available to gain a greater awareness of your psychological needs, along with multiple approaches for promoting intrinsic motivation and making behavioral changes.
- Basic Needs Satisfaction in General Scale – Score a series of 21 statements to understand your level of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
- Building New Habits – A better understanding of how our habitual behaviors work can help build healthier ones.
- Finding My Values – Awareness of the intrinsic values that support our goals can help us overcome the obstacles that impede us from achieving them.
- Identifying Your Ikigai – Finding your ikigai can lead you to discover meaning and purpose in life while acting as an intermediary between a sense of flow and coherence.
- Advantages And Disadvantages Of Changing – While we may wish to change, it is rarely straightforward. Understanding the pros and cons of doing so can assist therapy and improve the outcome for the client.
- Action Brainstorming – This exercise helps you identify, evaluate, and then break or change habits that may be getting in the way of making desired changes or moving closer to your goals.
- If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others reach their goals, this collection contains 17 validated motivation & goals-achievement tools for practitioners. Use them to help others turn their dreams into reality by applying the latest science-based behavioral change techniques.
A Take-Home Message
Intrinsic motivation energizes and directs who we are and what we do. Through meeting our basic psychological needs, including having a sense of control, competence, and relatedness, we set ourselves up to flourish (Ryan & Deci, 2017).
Creating the right environment to satisfy each factor results in highly engaged, passionate individuals ready to flourish and perform high-quality work in any domain.
Our perception of control in any given situation is crucial “in terms of effective performance, especially on heuristic tasks, psychological wellbeing, and healthy development” (Deci & Ryan, 2008). Indeed, autonomy supports motivation in multiple domains, including healthcare, education, parenting, and relationships.
Along with relatedness and competence, fulfilling our basic needs leads to more intrinsic motivation and readiness to engage with the world and experience better psychological health.
Why not try out some methods and strategies within this article yourself or with your clients? Changing your perception or the environment itself can lead to a more positive and more complete life that fosters growth and achievement.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Goal Achievement Exercises for free.
- Bolino, M. C, & Klotz, A. C. (2019). How to motivate employees to go beyond their jobs. In HBR guide to motivating people. Harvard Business Review.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
- Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2000). The “what” and “why” of goal pursuits: Human needs and the self-determination of behavior. Psychological Inquiry, 11, 227–268.
- Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Facilitating optimal motivation and psychological well-being across life’s domains. Canadian Psychology, 49(1), 14–23.
- Dweck, C. S. (2017). Mindset. Robinson.
- Fowler, S. (2019). What Maslow got wrong about our psychological needs. In HBR guide to motivating people. Harvard Business Review.
- Grenny, J. (2019). Great storytelling connects employees to their work. In HBR guide to motivating people. Harvard Business Review.
- Pink, D. H. (2018). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. Canongate Books.
- Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. Guilford Press.
- Su, A. J. (2019). Help someone discover work that excites them. In HBR guide to motivating people. Harvard Business Review.
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What our readers think
I have struggled with intrinsic motivation my whole life.
“Humans are by nature active and self-motivated, curious and interested, vital and eager to succeed because success itself is personally satisfying and rewarding.”
This statement is not true for me. I am not active or self-motivated, I possess little curiosity or interest in most things, and I do not find success to be satisfying or rewarding. I laugh when I read that people tend to enjoy things when they are good at them, because this has not been my experience. I am fortunate to be good at a few things, but I do not enjoy any of them and I do not find them intrinsically rewarding. They are just tasks. I feel anxiety when they need to be completed and relief when they are done, nothing more.
After years of reading up on the subject, I have come to the conclusion that my lack of intrinsic motivation is a result of my upbringing, which punished failure but did not reward success. When I succeeded at a task all it brought be was more and harder tasks. What is the incentive to achieve if doing so offers no reward? I believe that the neurological reward system of my brain never properly developed. It has left me with no passions and no idea what to do with my life.