What Really Drives Us: How to Build Team Performance through Intrinsic Motivation

Author: Steph Stern

We are powerfully motivated by how we feel about work, even more than pay and other external rewards that we typically associate with motivation. Imagine being askweaed to do an enjoyable task, like completing a series of fun puzzles. If you were doing it just for sheer pleasure, it would feel engaging, even light-hearted. When paid for the same activity, however, it can feel like an obligation. You might start worrying about doing it right or if the pay is really worth your time. 

Researcher Edward Deci carried out this puzzle comparison. The research team offered one group of study participants money for each puzzle they completed, whereas the second group wasn’t offered anything. When the research staff left the room, the people working for money stopped their puzzle work, whereas the ones working without pay continued for their own enjoyment. 

Too often managers and employers make the mistake of thinking that money and other external rewards drive sustainable and outstanding performance. These traditional ideas about driving results based on carrots (bonuses, benefits and perks) and sticks (such as negative performance reviews or threat of being fired) might work for some very routine jobs or simple short-term tasks. Especially for the type of creative and innovative work needed to meet today’s changing business environment, however, research paints a very different picture. 

Described in their foundational book on intrinsic motivation, Why We Do What We Do, Edward Deci and Richard Flaste suggest this as a powerful reflection of how our internal motivation can be far more effective and motivating than external rewards. This, however, is not an excuse to pay employees poorly. In order for employees to feel motivated intrinsically, they need to be paid well enough that money is not a source of stress (a reasonable goal for an employer that cares about both their employees’ well-being and their longevity at the organization). 

Sustainable motivation develops when people feel helpful, capable, and purposeful. According to author Dan Pink, when these elements are in place, people feel intrinsically motivated. In other words, when an organization and team treats their people well, creates a clear vision and goals, and then gets out of their way to allow them to do their best work, they will! 

We Want to Feel Helpful

Humans are social creatures, perhaps especially when working as part of a team. Our sense of connection, belonging and helpfulness is a substantial driver of motivation. 

In a study, Blake Allan and his team at Purdue University told half of their study participants that their task (a simple typing exercise) would benefit others, while the other half were told it would benefit themselves. When assessed after completing the task, the researchers discovered that participants who thought they were benefiting others found the work more meaningful. When our tasks help others, we tend to perceive our work as more meaningful–and meaning translates into enjoyment, productivity, and satisfaction. Allan himself suggests that employers might help workers to find more meaning by helping them see the impact of their work. 

Team dynamics are a critical place for this form of motivation. In a connected and well-functioning team, individual teammates will be motivated to support one another and contribute to the overall performance of the team and organization. Team practices can increase the awareness around and motivational drive of this feeling of helpfulness. For example, a team meeting could start with a short check-in round where each person shares one way their work has helped others. Or each person might share something helpful another teammate did for them! 

We Want to Feel Capable

Researchers Edward Deci and Richard Ryan challenged the notion of rewards as the main driver of motivation with their “self-determination” theory. Key to this theory is that autonomy is essential for motivation and the foundation of success and fulfillment. Autonomy refers to the degree of independence and control employees have over their work tasks and decision-making processes. When employees are granted autonomy, they often experience higher levels of intrinsic motivation.

Healthy autonomy is supported by structure and feedback. Without this, employees can feel unsupported, lost or end up working at odds with each other. Enough guidance to ensure alignment across teams and to contribute to the organization’s purpose is essential. However, especially in today’s world of remote and hybrid work, many traditional ways of monitoring or controlling employees (e.g. regular office hours, dress codes, facetime) are no longer relevant. Instead, when you provide clear expectations (ideally co-created with the team) and then trust your people to deliver on their roles and responsibilities, you create healthy autonomy that can improve innovation, creativity, and motivation.

In their book Designing Your New Work Life (p.149), authors and Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans suggest that managers should create opportunities to develop autonomy and mastery in their teams. They suggest that managers reflect on the following questions: Am I allowing employees to meet their fundamental need for independence and autonomy? Do I trust them? Are my teams self-directed? Are my people learning on the job?

We Want to Feel Purposeful

Feeling an inherent sense of purpose and seeing the impact of our labor leaves people more motivated and productive. A study from Dan Ariely and his colleagues exemplifies this; they paid participants to assemble Lego Bionicles sets, building figurines that took about 10 minutes each. The study included two conditions–in the first, the “meaningful condition,” the completed Bionicles were placed on a desk so the subject could see the Bionicles that they’d fully assembled displayed. In the second condition, the “Sisyphus condition,” the experimenter would start to disassemble the completed Bionicle immediately while the subject began working on their next one so the Bionicles didn’t accumulate. Instead, the participant would rebuild previously assembled pieces that had just been taken apart in front of them. Though the pay and the task was the same for both groups, the group that could see their efforts completed substantially more Bionicles than the group who saw their work dismantled (10.6 compared to 7.2 for the Sisyphus group). 

Seeing the positive impact of our work is especially meaningful and motivating when we hear directly from people who were helped. In a study from Wharton School’s Adam Grant, fundraising volunteers who were calling potential donors raised almost 400% more than average after they had heard an impactful personal story from a current scholarship recipient. 

To encourage this form of motivation, teams should make sure to maintain direct connection with the impact of their work. This can include opportunities for ride-alongs, sharing stories of impact at team meetings, or directly connecting with customers, stakeholders and end-users impacted by the team’s work. At SIY Global, we regularly attend our own programs as a way to experience and feel moved by the impact of our work up close. 

Sometimes the impact can be hard to see or take a long time to bear fruit, so celebrating progress and small achievements is essential. In their HBR article "The Power of Small Wins," authors Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer write about the progress principle: “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”

Creating an Intrinsic Motivation-Focused Team

Intrinsic motivation requires us to connect to the feeling of work. As we build our emotional awareness and intelligence, we can more easily see where work becomes depleting and demotivating. Individually and as a team, we also can savor and seek out the aspects and experiences that leave us feeling competent, connected and impactful. 

Managers who want to build high-performing, connected teams are called upon to cultivate an environment where employees are empowered, connected with peers and stakeholders, and aware of the meaningful impact they create. Although not a reason to take advantage of people’s passion or pay employees poorly, this intrinsic motivation is essential to maintain strong performance for individuals and teams, especially in a remote or hybrid workplace. 

When we inherently enjoy our work– when we feel helpful, capable, and purposeful–the experience of work can be its own reward. 

Are you looking to build a team that is connected, high-performing, and delivers results? Learn more about our newest offering: our teaming suite here.

Author: Steph SternSteph Stern Author Headshot