How to Have Intrinsic Motivation in The Workplace

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What is intrinsic motivation in the workplace? How can you motivate employees and increase output using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs helps explain how you can use intrinsic motivation in the workplace. All employees have the same needs, and you can help guide them to be more productive.

Read more about intrinsic motivation in the workplace.

Intrinsic Motivation in the Workplace

If an employee’s poor performance isn’t due to a lack of training, it may be due to a lack of motivation. Motivation comes from the inside, so you can’t instill it in or force it on someone. What you can do is foster an environment where people can become motivated and perform well. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs can help you have intrinsic motivation in the workplace. According to Abraham Maslow, people are motivated by the desire to satisfy their needs. Once a need is met, motivation ceases. Therefore, to create motivation, you need to create a climate in which some of people’s needs are constantly unsatisfied. 

People have many needs and they fall into a hierarchy—only once you’ve satisfied your most important and basest needs do you start trying to satisfy your higher needs.

Here are the needs, in order of lowest to highest:

  1. Survival, which is the need for basic necessities such as food, clothing, and shelter. 
  2. Safety, which is the need for things that allow access to basic necessities. (Shortform example: Having a job is a safety need because it allows you to buy the food you need to survive.)
  3. Belonging, which is the need to be part of a group of like-minded members and the need for love and relationships.
  4. Status, which is the need for recognition or esteem, or to keep up with others. Often, this recognition is only valuable to the person seeking it. 
  5. “Self-actualization,” which is the need to achieve your personal best or a higher purpose. There are two drivers of this need:
    1. Competence. This is the drive to become a master of a particular skill. The majority of people are competence-driven. 
    2. Achievement. This is the need to be good at everything you do. 

The first three needs inspire employees to get a job and report for work. All three of them are possible to satisfy, so when they’re met, intrinsic motivation in the workplace ceases.

  • For example, at an Intel plant in the Caribbean, many people only worked until they had made a certain amount of money. Once they had as much as they thought they needed to satisfy their needs, they quit.

The last two needs encourage high performance. Status is satisfiable, so motivation will eventually cease once an employee reaches a certain level of success, but self-actualization is limitless because there’s no concrete goal attached to it. Therefore, as a manager, you need to get everyone to the self-actualization stage to tap into their best performance.

Reaching Self-Actualization

To help everyone reach self-actualization and have intrinsic motivation in the workplace:

1. Assess where people fall in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. One way to do this to look at how they view money and raises. If a subordinate gets a raise and she’s concerned with the absolute value, then she’s working at the survival or security level. If she’s concerned with the relative value (how her raise compares to her coworkers’), then she’s likely after status or self-actualization and is using money as a measure of achievement.

  • For example, a venture capitalist motivated to make $10 million who already has $10 million doesn’t need money to meet survival, security, or social needs. Additionally, more money probably won’t give her more status because venture capitalists don’t usually announce their success. Therefore, for her, money is a record of how much she’s achieved.

2. Reassess hierarchy position from time to time. People can move both up and down Maslow’s hierarchy. 

  • For example, when manufacturing employees at an Intel plant in California were working on their higher needs and there was an earthquake, they all regressed to meeting survival needs.

3. Base achievement recognition on output. Only attach status and self-actualization to achievements that are output-relevant. Otherwise, people will be motivated to work towards things that don’t benefit the company, such as competing for the nicest office chair.

  • For example, at Intel, knowledge for the sake of knowledge isn’t particularly recognized, but applying that knowledge to produce results is.

4. Consider the effects of fear. In the past, fear of punishment was the main motivational strategy. (If people didn’t work, they didn’t have the money to eat. Their only option would be to steal food, the punishment for which was hanging. Therefore, people were motivated to work to avoid the punishment of death.) At the time of writing, fear was being replaced by more humane motivational strategies. However, fear is still present in status and self-actualization, though it’s usually internally-generated fear of failure. Fear can be motivating—it encourages people to perform—but it can also become an obsession, which results in a reluctance to take risks because they come with the danger of failure.

5. Create opportunities for people to test themselves. People will produce greater output trying to achieve things that are just beyond their reach (self-actualization is always a little out of reach).

6. Make work mimic competitive sports. Competition is highly motivating, so if you can tap into this, you can increase performance. To do this:

  • Dispense with the idea that work is drudgery and if you spend too much time doing it you’re a workaholic—start thinking of work as a competitive sport instead. No one thinks that athletes who spend a lot of time training are dull or have a problem.
  • Create a competitive atmosphere by making up a game, rules, and a way to keep score using indicators. To do this, you have to see the job from the point of view of the people who are doing it.
    • For example, when Intel started keeping track of how many square feet each janitorial team cleaned, everyone’s performance rose because they started competing with each other to win (winning offered a status boost).
  • Encourage people to view failure like losing a game—in sports, few people give up halfway through the game out of fear of losing. They keep playing even when their score is low.
  • Manage like a coach. Be critical of people’s performance (which will encourage good performance), don’t take credit for wins (this will make your team trust you), and share your knowledge of the “sport” (work) because you probably did it yourself so have valuable insights to provide.

7. Provide feedback. When striving to meet the need for self-actualization, motivation is generated by the drive to improve, and it’s impossible to improve without feedback. People provide their own internal feedback—for example, when a professional violinist is practicing and hears herself play a wrong note, she can go over the section again until she gets it right—but also require external feedback. We’ll look at how to provide this in the next chapter.

Increasing the Output of Teams

To improve the output of your team, choose the management style that will best foster their high performance. The deciding factor in this decision is task-relevant maturity (TRM)—how educated, experienced, and mentally ready an employee is to do a particular task in particular circumstances. You can help this by having intrinsic motivation in the workplace.

  • For example, one Intel sales manager was very successful in the field environment—he had high TRM—and Intel promoted him to a plant environment. However, his TRM in this new environment was low—he didn’t know how to do any of the plant-related tasks.

Here’s how you should manage employees with the following TRM levels:

Low: Provide structure and strong guidance on operational values. Give your team detailed directions about exactly what needs to be done, how, and when. 

Medium: Provide some structure and guidance but expect the team to provide some of it themselves. Instead of managing prescriptively, exchange ideas and communicate. (Note: This mode is the most difficult for most managers because hitting a balance is more challenging than meeting an extreme.)

High: Provide minimal structure—the team will provide the bulk of it themselves. Don’t involve yourself with the team’s work; just make sure objectives are clear. High TRM is advantageous because:

  • The managing style is less time-consuming.
  • The manager can be confident about delegating because she knows her subordinates can handle the task.
  • When teams are managing themselves, motivation usually comes from self-actualization, which is the only need in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that can never be satisfied and thus provides a permanent source of motivation. (We’ll discuss Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and motivation further in Chapter 2.)

Always monitor your team, no matter what the TRM level is. If the TRM changes, adjust your management style, up or down.

None of these management styles are better or worse than others. Many managers feel the prescriptiveness of low-TRM management isn’t nice or sophisticated, but your goal isn’t to be these things—it’s to be effective.

How to Have Intrinsic Motivation in The Workplace

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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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