Understanding what motivates your employees has the power to transform your business.

Public recognition. Quarterly bonuses. Gamification.

All of these tactics have the power to motivate employees. Most organizations use a mix of approaches to encourage their people to perform at high levels, as well as to uphold the company’s values and business processes. But how do you know if you’re motivating your people in the right way? 

Understanding what motivates your employees — and leveraging it at the right moments — has the power to transform your business. Let me give you an example. 

For one organization in the transportation industry, employee and customer safety is the crux of their success. Through careful analysis of the feedback provided by the organization’s nearly-100,000 employees, business leaders were able to identify a high correlation between employee engagement levels and the risk of injury on the job.

Their most surprising finding? Leaders found that it wasn’t external factors, like the availability of injury-prevention resources, that cause the biggest disparity in injury rates across locations. Instead, the analysis revealed that the employees who tend to be safer at work are those who express feeling a sense of belonging, trust, and empowerment. 

By extrapolating this knowledge by location, the organization can now predict, a quarter in advance, at which sites injuries are likely to be the highest, and leaders can address engagement issues and make resource adjustments accordingly.

Like many organizations, this company’s people are driven first and foremost by intrinsic motivation, a self-sustaining source of fulfillment and performance that contributes to both individual and organizational success. These factors—a sense of belonging and ownership—are a big part of the “why” that motivates them to show up and do their best work, rather than take a mental raincheck for the day. 

Understanding intrinsic motivation can transform your business

By and large, organizations tend to rely heavily on a different and less powerful type of employee motivators, focusing primarily on external sources, like performance bonuses, promotions, salary increases, or a trip to Hawaii, to motivate their people. This is evidenced by the widespread dependence on practices like “pay for performance,” traditional performance appraisals, performance ratings, and forced rankings. 

While these are valuable, when we exclusively use external rewards to get people to achieve goals, it can feel like we’re attempting to control their behavior. Instead of feeling excited and challenged to exceed a target, we sometimes see people hit a goal and go no further. 

Intrinsic motivation, however, like growth opportunities, or a strong sense of purpose, can spur employees to go above and beyond. A recent meta-analysis found that in motivating people to complete complex, quality-focused tasks that involve creativity, intrinsic motivation was nearly six times more powerful than extrinsic motivation in predicting performance.It’s time we start designing our HR and performance practices to realize the vast potential employees’ intrinsic motivation has in lifting organizations to levels previously unreached.

Putting intrinsic motivation to work

Simply put, intrinsic motivation comes from within. It’s the drive you feel to push on a project because the work itself—rather than the deliverable, or reward for it—energizes you, or the sense of trust you experience when you get a chance to handle a big opportunity on your own. 

Leading science has identified several key precursors to intrinsic motivation in the workplace, including: 

While we all generally share these basic needs, each of us is slightly different in what we need to feel intrinsically motivated. So it’s important for leaders to have regular touchpoints with employees to tailor the employee experience to each individual.

Using intrinsic motivation for sustainable performance

What does intrinsic motivation look like in practice?

Tapping into your employees’ intrinsic motivators doesn’t have to be a major lift. Following these tactics, your organization can build a stronger culture that inspires your people to work smarter, be safer, and perform above and beyond the call of duty. 

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