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The Biggest Proven Motivation Theory That’s Rarely Implemented At Work

The Biggest Proven Motivation Theory That’s Rarely Implemented At Work

Every year, billions of dollars are spent by corporate America in an attempt to motivate and engage employees. Human Resources, Sales and other workplace disciplines are routinely taxed to design motivational campaigns to further drive performance, engagement and outperform financial results.

Often overlooked, scientific studies have been performed for years on the topic of motivation to help guide managers and leaders with their efforts in effectively motivating employees.

As Daniel Pink, author and educator on employee motivation, once remarked:

“There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.” –

Here are some of the many ineffective one-size-fits-all motivation techniques many companies have tried:

  • Contests and points-based rewards
  • Incentive programs
  • Yearly performance reviews
  • Disingenuous recognition programs

However, the simple, key mistake that all companies make is this:

One-size-fits-all motivational programs only motivate a small percentage of employees. Tweet this!

And this is because scientific motivational theory has proven that individuals are motivated differently. There are many types of motivational theories, but this one is proven.


Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is defined as when one performs an action or behavior because they enjoy the activity itself.

Employees who are intrinsically motivated have the motivation to engage in a behavior because it is inherently rewarding enjoyable and fulfilling Not because their boss directs them to or because they’ll get a tangible reward. Their motivations for engaging in the behavior arise entirely from within.

Of course, that isn’t to say that intrinsically motivated behaviors are without their own rewards.

Instead, these rewards come in the form of tenacity, passion and drive within the individual. Activities can generate such effects when they give people a sense of meaning or purpose (like a clear alignment of their activities toward a higher level company goal), a sense of progress (seeing that their work resulted in positive business outcomes), or competence (learning something new or becoming more skilled at a task).

happy workers

Intrinsic Motivation: Scientific Proof

The phenomenon of intrinsic motivation was first acknowledged within experimental studies of human behavior, where it was discovered that many people engage in exploratory, playful, and curiosity-driven behaviors even in the absence of reinforcement or reward.

We see this clearly in children. But think about the adults you know with hobbies and passions outside of work. No one has to tell them to do those things. They do them out of pure enjoyment. That’s intrinsic motivation.

Recent Intrinsic Motivation Study Findings

Amy Wrzesniewski and Barry Schwartz, psychologists at Yale University and Swarthmore College, respectively, worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. They accessed 14 years of data on motivations and outcomes for more than 10,000 cadets.

West Point asks its annual 1,400 incoming cadets to describe their motivations using a series of questions and numerical scales. The researchers innovated a composite score for each cadet that captured the ratio of internal to external motivations. For example, cadets had to choose a point on a scale for “Desire to be an Army officer”—which by definition is an internal motivation—and also for “My parents wanted me to go,” which is an external one. Then they measured how much of the variation in career outcomes matched up with that ratio.

This study proved that intrinsic motivation mattered much more than external motivation. Even when other factors were accounted for—such as race, religion, gender, socioeconomic background, and scholastic scores—cadets with primarily internal motives were about 20% more likely to make it to graduation from West Point. For cadets who did not have primarily internal motivations, their chances of graduating were worse than average.

Countless studies such as these prove that tapping into intrinsic motivators results in clear positive outcomes related to job satisfaction, performance and engagement. In samples of employees all over the world, research by Richard Ryan and Edward Deci has demonstrated that intrinsic motivators support enhanced growth, performance, and well-being. Even more interesting, time and time again, their work has shown that extrinsic motivators can actually diminish the internal motivation to complete tasks, making work drudgery instead of meaningful and energizing.

Focusing on intrinsic motivators as the primary way to enhance the employee experience at work is truly a data-driven best practice. But, why aren’t more organizations aligning themselves with these recommendations?

Why So Few Organizations Implement Intrinsic Motivation

People are intrinsically motivated for some activities and not others, and not everyone is intrinsically motivated for any particular task.  This fact is daunting to many organizations – so much so that a one-size-fits-all approach suddenly appears to be simpler and more appealing to implement.

The challenge then becomes understanding each employee’s actual motivators in a scalable, meaningful way without resorting to guessing.

At smaller organizations, the one-on-one meetings and check-ins with each employee is reasonable and, perhaps, expected. Through repetitive conversations with each team member, a keen leader begins to learn what motivates each of his or her team members.

However, when a team comprises of dozens of staff members, those individual conversations become too time consuming to execute. Couple that with training hundreds of managers to engage in meaningful conversations and you’re suddenly back to square one.

Watch our video on the motivation and engagement lifecycle:

How To Make Understanding Employee Motivators Scalable

Many employees are not highly motivated and operate as if they’re burnt out. Because of this, they’re also highly underutilized. By being able to tap into motivations and aligning employees into the right roles and teams, it will increase fulfillment and excitement of individual employees. As a result, understanding intrinsic motivators in turn increases productivity and employee engagement.

How do you change burnout to high productivity? It starts with understanding the actual motivations of employees in a scalable way.

MotiveX is the first assessment that’s scientifically validated to inform leaders and managers of what actually motivates employees.  Through its proprietary questioning, it gets at the root motivators of each individual. Not only that, it also uncovers whether or not those motivators are tapped into in their current role.

The Pollsify Motivation Assessment™ is available online and can be taken any time, any where. It doesn’t require training your managers. It doesn’t involve hundreds of conversations.

It’s easy to implement and is scalable to the hundreds of thousands of employees your organization may employ.

This assessment not only alleviates the need for individual conversations and assumptions of what motivates employees, it also provides reporting and blueprints to help managers take action once the motivators are received.

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Who would be interested in our assessment?

  • CEOs
  • Managers
  • Team Leaders
  • Company Founders
  • HR Executives
  • Recruiting Firms