EngagementUnderstanding the dynamics of human motivation

Understanding the dynamics of human motivation

Professor Richard Ryan, one of the world’s leading researchers on human motivation, explains the science behind building a happy, engaged, and motivated workforce.

At the start of the year, many people are considering their next career move–whether that’s setting their eyes on a promotion or changing career paths altogether. For many, that will mean leaving their current employer.

Sometimes, people are just looking for a change. But more often, we see employees leaving their jobs because they feel their career has stagnated and they’re not valued by their employer. One survey found a third of people quit their jobs because they weren’t learning new skills and didn’t feel like their employer was helping them to progress within the company.

Fostering a culture where the staff is truly engaged, where they feel like they are appreciated and have clear career goals–and are actually motivated to achieve those goals–is critical to attracting and retaining great talent and inspiring people to deliver their best work. That starts with adopting a fresh approach to motivation.

Dropping the carrot and the stick

When I first started studying the psychology behind human motivation, the typical approach was to try and find incentives or threats that would encourage or discourage a certain behavior–we call these extrinsic motivators. Basically, people subscribed to the “carrot and the stick” tactic. But over the last few decades, we’ve realized the limitations of that approach.

Motivating ourselves or others through external factors–either with the promise of some reward or the threat of punishment–is rarely successful and lasting. What we now know from the science is that when we are moved by internal motivations–such as finding interest, meaning, or value in our work—we experience greater job satisfaction, commitment, and well-being. That’s really a key aspect of Self-Determination Theory (SDT), the idea of supporting people’s intrinsic motivation and personal value for what they are doing.

Whether we’re talking about our professional or our personal lives, we can identify three basic needs that really drive our intrinsic motivation: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. For workers to feel fulfilled, companies must ensure they have a culture that ticks all three of these boxes.

People need to feel like they can be effective at their job and that they’re using their skills to make a meaningful and valued contribution. They must feel connected to others–perhaps through a joint purpose or company vision–while also feeling like they have autonomy and ownership over both their day-to-day activities and their long-term career path.

Encouraging commitment, not forcing compliance

Every business has certain KPIs to achieve, but people aren’t machines, and we don’t respond to just being told the numbers we need to hit. We need to be given more context that explains why the work we’re doing really matters in order to feel accomplished. Having a clear company vision is an important part of this. It can rally employees around a shared sense of purpose, creating an overarching goal that everyone in the company–regardless of seniority or job title–feels like they are a part of it.

But there is a fine line between setting meaningful goals and enforcing a top-down mandate. A good leader will embrace open communication within their team, ensuring every person understands the part they play and why certain demands are being made of them, but who also listens to their concerns and shows a willingness to be flexible and compromise when possible. It’s about empowering your team, rather than keeping them in line by exercising your power over them.

Offering the right kind of rewards

Many companies now offer their employees perks and benefits packages–such as a free gym membership or gift cards–as a form of reward for good service and to attract and retain staff. These incentive systems often fall under that extrinsic motivation category, so they must be leveraged carefully to ensure they aren’t undermining that culture of intrinsic motivation we’re trying to create.

Of course, everyone wants to be paid well and rewarded for hard work. Part of the reason behind that is that most of us feel the amount we’re paid indicates how much we’re valued by our company. So being paid well can convey to employees that they matter and are recognized. But that transaction can really sour when a company focuses too much on outcome-focused rewards, which can feel controlling rather than supportive.

The most common example of this is organizations offering bonuses if employees reach certain targets or KPIs. That form of outcome-focused reward system can be very corrupting in a company because it can lead people to focus only on what is getting rewarded. It can lead to the temptation to cut corners or even cheat, just to reach the end goal. It can also create tensions within teams if such rewards are competitive or appear inequitable. In such scenarios, employees can become more extrinsically motivated in their jobs—more oriented to put in effort only when specifically incentivized or pressured. They’re no longer working hard because they’re passionate about doing a good job; they’re just chasing that carrot.

That’s not to say incentive systems should be scrapped altogether; we need them as part of motivational design. But it’s important to consider what our compensation approaches are conveying to employees: Are they fair? Are they putting pressure on people to perform? Are they representing the value of the work being done?

In addition to focusing on external incentives, offering opportunities for greater intrinsic satisfaction can be an important tool for fostering greater engagement and commitment. As an employee’s skill and responsibilities grow, so should their choices and freedom from micro-management. In addition, offering access to a range of career development tools, such as coaching sessions or access to online courses, can play to people’s intrinsic motivations. Providing learning and development opportunities that enable people to learn new skills gives them that feeling of competence as well as offering them autonomy by equipping them with the tools they can use to shape their own career path.

Compassionate leadership

As a co-founder of a company that does organizational assessments and interventions, I have worked with a lot of human resource leaders and managers, so I understand that creating a culture built around fostering employees’ intrinsic motivation may seem daunting. But I think it really all starts with understanding employees’ viewpoints and experiences. For a leader, it means listening to employees, which also helps you diagnose how to help when that’s needed. It also means trusting that your employees want to do a great job if they’re just given the right conditions to do it. That’s the big switch in management today—moving away from motivating externally through carrots and sticks to instead inspiring internal motivation by supporting employees’ needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness in their jobs.

Find out more about SDT and different strategies and styles for better motivation by enrolling in my free online course that is available on Coursera here.


Dr. Richard Ryan is a Professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology & Education at the Australian Catholic University and Professor Emeritus in Psychology at the University of Rochester in New York. He’s also the co-developer of Self-Determination Theory, one of the leading theories of human motivation.

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