Intrinsic motivation: 3 things that motivate employees more than money

Motivate employees

In 2009, career analyst and former speechwriter for Al Gore, Daniel Pink, gave a 20-minute TED Talk on the puzzle of motivation. We hope you don’t mind us referencing something this old, but we can’t help thinking about how many business leaders would benefit from listening to his presentation.

In it, Pink explains why financial incentives often don’t work in 21st century environments where problem-solving and cognitive thinking are more important than mechanical skill.

Numerous studies over the last 40 years have found that, for tasks that require mechanical skill, bonuses worked as would be expected – the higher the pay, the better the performance.

But once the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward actually leads to poorer performance. Pink believes that financial incentives like bonuses and commissions may do more harm than good.

Motivate employees

Intrinsic motivators are more powerful than extrinsic motivators

Time and again, researchers have found that people with high intrinsic motivation (i.e. they are driven by internal rewards and satisfaction) perform much better than people offered high extrinsic motivation (i.e. external rewards).

Pink argues that if companies can help their employees find intrinsic motivation then they will have a more sustainable motivation to work hard and succeed, which means they will be more productive, add more value to the business, and be less likely to resign.

How can you use intrinsic rewards to motivate employees?

Pink highlights three keys to intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Motivate employees


People are happier when they are given the freedom to make their own decisions about how to live and work.

CIPHR explains that, “Employees who are free to make their own choices about how they go about their responsibilities are happier, committed, productive and loyal. Autonomy may also be the most important factor when nurturing a culture of engagement within a company.”

Employees who have the freedom to make their own decisions at work tend to be more motivated because they know that they responsible for their own success or failure – which drives them to work harder.

Other benefits of autonomy include:

  • Happier, more engaged and more loyal people
  • Greater productivity
  • A greater desire to be proactive in learning and trying new things

All of which leads to a better, more positive company culture, because people learn to take responsibility for their own actions and their own happiness.

How do you create a culture of autonomy?

It can be difficult to change current employee’s mindsets, but you can start to change your culture by making sure you recruit people who are intrinsically motivated to take responsibility for their own work, and who value autonomy. Then make sure your job descriptions, interviews and employee integration processes are designed to attract the right people and equip them to work autonomously.

Managers may need to adapt their leadership styles – especially if they are used to micro-managing employees. To encourage autonomy and motivate employees, managers need to give their workers the space to think creatively, try new things, and even fail without the fear of recrimination.

In order to truly trust your employees, you need to understand and accept the risk of failure. Start small by slowly increasing an employee’s responsibilities and autonomy.


We already know that high performing employees are not primarily motivated by money.  They’re driven by an intrinsic desire to master new skills and do their best work. In fact, many are so driven to master their craft that they’ll leave a high paying job for one that offers more training and development opportunities.

If you want to attract and retain high performers, you need to create a culture of continuous learning.

How do you create a culture of continuous learning?

1. Give them access to a variety of learning opportunities

There are lots of ways you can facilitate learning. If you have the budget, you can go the implement your own courses using an learning management system (LMS). If you have a smaller budget, you can buy books, or simply give your employees permission to spend an hour or two per week watching videos, joining webinars or reading up on subject.

For more tips on how to create a culture of continuous learning, take a look at this article.

2. Connect them with high performing mentors

Mentorship programs are a great way to attract, retain and grow your employees. A good mentor is someone your employee respects, trusts and wants to learn from. Having someone guide and encourage them as they navigate their career and the world of office politics can be a huge motivation.

And if the mentor is someone who understands and is driven by an intrinsic desire to master their craft, they can make a huge impact on younger employees.

3. Be intentional about career planning and performance reviews

High performers want career growth. And when they don’t get it, they leave. So, if you’re managing a department and don’t have a career development plan for everyone in it – you’re playing with fire.

Here’s how to conduct an effective career planning meeting.

Performance reviews are just as important. Annual reviews that are only linked to bonus payouts can be extremely demoralizing to high performers who thrive on regular check-ins and value their managers’ input.

4. Allow them to broaden their experience with ‘gigs’ in different departments

Giving high performers the opportunity to take on stimulating internal work gigs in other departments is a great way to help them master new skills. The added benefit of course, is that internal gigs also help your company become more innovative, agile and productive.

Here are five ways to create a successful internal gigs program.

5. Celebrate new skills

If you don’t recognize new skills and the hard work that goes into gaining them, you’ll soon find that high performers become discouraged.

Show your employees that respect and appreciate their desire to master new skills by giving them recognition on a regular basis, and encouraging them to put their new skills to work.


“Having a personal sense of meaning in one’s work was even more important than compensation, which ranked as the third most important reason for staying,” says Eric Mosley, CEO of Globoforce, a talent engagement software provider, that ran a survey to find out what makes employees stay at their companies.

Employees want to be involved, they want to make a difference, they want to improve their skills, and they want to balance their work and private lives.

After that, everyone has their view of what makes their work meaningful. Help your employees find meaning at work, and their intrinsic motivation will soar.

How do you help employees find purpose?

People care about what they do. And they care about why they do it. In his 2009 TED talk, Simon Sinek, author of the book, “Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action,” explains that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.

1. Share your vision

Transformational leadership communicates a vision (i.e. your organization’s ‘why’) that inspires and motivates people to achieve something extraordinary. By aligning your employees and systems to achieve this vision with integrity, you motivate them to incorporate higher values and ethics – ensuring that they will follow you for their own benefit.

2. Recognize and encourage them regularly

Once employees have bought into your vision, show them how their jobs contribute. Employees who are recognized are more likely to find meaning and purpose in their work.

3. Create a strong sense of community and inclusion

People find meaning when they feel included, connected and valued. An environment that embraces and celebrates diversity can be highly motivating for high performers.

You can create a sense of community by encouraging employees to connect with each other through affinity groups, community service programs, and social clubs.

A CSR program can also be a great way to motivate employees. Benevity is a technology company that specializes in CSR software. They found that employee-centric CSR programs can reduce turnover by 57%.

Use technology to manage and measure employee motivation

Our software is designed to help companies retain their employees by offering tailored integration, retention, diversity, and performance pathways for employees.

Watch this video to see how it works:

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