How can you improve intrinsic motivation?



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9 mins

From granting workers greater autonomy to building trusting relationships, here’s how you can more effectively motivate workers

Many employees are struggling with motivation. A Gallup study found only a mere 32% of employees said they were thriving in life – meaning almost two in three employees have been struggling in some way, and were more likely to report daily worry, stress, depression, sadness, or anger, feelings that can impact motivation at work.

“If you’re not happy within yourself, and are stressed or worried about things, you’re just going to be coasting along at work and doing the bare minimum,” says Ciphr’s head of people Gwenan West. “Some employees don’t want to put effort into thinking outside the box or coming up with innovative ideas at work, they just want to get through the workday.”

When you motivate all employees, however, West says “you’ll see them become more collaborative and they will want to give more to their job.”

With more than four in five (85%) senior decision-makers wishing to explore new ways of improving employee productivity, engagement and motivation, senior leaders, HR teams and managers need to work together to look at new ways they can improve motivation.

Extrinsic motivation is no longer enough

Extrinsic motivation refers to behaviour that is driven by external rewards – for example, doing something at your job that you might not normally find enjoyable or rewarding in order to earn a wage.

A pay rise, employee benefits and perks, and a bonus scheme are all examples of extrinsic motivators. However, in workplaces today, where employees are motivated less by pay, and more by flexibility and appreciation, a bonus or pay rise may not be enough to motivate employees .

“Yes, there will be a percentage of people that are purely motivated by money, but there’ll be others in the business that won’t be motivated by money but more by intrinsic rewards, such as being treated with respect or helping the company achieve its goals.”

Intrinsic motivation focuses on factors that come from within a person. This type of motivation refers to behaviour this is driven by pure enjoyment – your motivation to perform well at work comes from yourself rather than out of a desire to gain an external reward (the reward in this case, can, however, involve creating positive emotions within yourself).

Research has found that feeling appreciated and motivated for their contributions are two of the top three predictors of employee retention and satisfaction today, showing that organisations need to focus on improving intrinsic motivation, and here we share some of the ways you can do so.

Build trust and respect

For employees to truly enjoy their job, they need to feel like they matter to the organisation. One way you can show employees that you value them is by building a relationship of trust and respect.

When employers trust their employees, workers are more likely to become creative, productive, and inspired to do their job. “If a manager trusts an employee to be able to work on their own initiative, and doesn’t micromanage them, then that employee will probably grow within that role and be happy to take on more responsibility,” West points out.

To start building a relationship of trust, you should make sure you’re listening to employees and giving them the space they need to flourish.

“Talk to employees, get to know them better, find out what kind of person they are both inside and outside of work, and use this knowledge to build a close bond with employees,” says West.

Managers can also find out what exactly motivates each individual and then take relevant action.  “You don’t want to be dangling a financial incentive in front of an employee who actually would prefer to have an extra day of holiday over extra money, but you can only figure this out by building trust on both ends so that employees trust you enough to tell you what they want, she adds.”

Grant autonomy

Intrinsic motivation involves employees achieving their full potential when they are given freedom and responsibility over their work. By building a relationship of trust, you can, in turn, grant workers greater autonomy.

A 2021 survey found almost two-thirds (63%) of remote workers said they felt free to do their work in a time that suits them best, and, since this increased the sense of trust, half of workers (51%) said they felt more motivated to do a better job – proving the impact of greater autonomy on motivation.

Employees want to be able to decide where they work from and which tasks they should prioritise, and they want greater ownership of projects they are working on. By giving workers this autonomy, you’re motivating them to perform to the best of their ability.

Praise workers

All employees want to feel pride in their work, so you need to make sure you are motivating employees by praising them and by letting them know that their work is making a difference.

“Recognition schemes in this case can be a big help,” says West. “Employees should highlight the work of other employees to the rest of the company in the form of a company/team email or giving them reward points that they can exchange for vouchers, for example.”

West says you should also let employees know that their work is meaningful “by communicating to them where their work sits on the path to the organisation achieving its goals.

“The more we communicate with employees about where the company is going, and what we want to achieve, the greater understanding they have around the importance of their role and work, which can motivate them to perform better for the sake of the company’s success.”

One way of communicating this to employees is by sharing quarterly updates from the CEO. “The CEO should tell employees if they have had a really good quarter and how their hard work has made a difference,” she adds.

Encourage growth and learning

“If an employee feels like they are not developing in their career and that they’re still exactly where they were 12/18 months ago, then they will be demotivated and think that it’s not worth them putting any more effort into their work because they’re not actually getting anything from it in return.”

Giving employees opportunities to learn new skills and grow in their career can show them that you care about their development and you want them to achieve their best – helping you motivate and retain talent.

Investing in a learning management system (LMS), such as Ciphr LMS, can help you engage and develop your people by giving you a central platform for all of your learning content – employees can access learning content whenever they need it and you can grant them autonomy over their learning. If, however, you don’t have a dedicated L&D team in your organisation, or you don’t have formal L&D processes, West says “you can still motivate employees by encouraging them to do online courses or by agreeing to pay or give time off for them to attend training courses in person.”

Build an enjoyable workplace culture

Every employee wants to work somewhere where they can have fun, build relationships with their colleagues, and enjoy themselves. This enjoyment can lead employees to love what they do, but this can only happen if you focus on building a fun workplace culture.

Managers should organise fun, inclusive team outings (such as doing an escape room or going for a meal) to bring their team together and foster friendships at work. You can also help to create a culture where people can pursue their interests. “If, for example, a few employees are really passionate about the environment, it would be good to have a corporate social responsibility group in the company that they can join,” says West. “You should aim to make employees feel like they have a community at work that they belong to, which doesn’t necessarily need to be work-related. Build your culture so that employees want to come into work and do things they are passionate about.”

Offer flexible working

The pandemic forced many office-based employees to work remotely, and the signs suggest that employers who force people to return to their workplaces will struggle to motivate employees. According to a survey by the Centre for the Modern Family, 23% of UK workers would be willing to take a pay cut in order to have more flexible working hours, while another global study found that 77% of workers would prefer to work for a company that gives them the flexibility to work from anywhere rather than corporate headquarters.

If you have mandated that people return to the office, you might find that some employees are struggling with motivation. Talk to people and find out how and where they would prefer to work and try to accommodate their preferences as best you can, such as through hybrid working arrangements. Remember, though, that any flexible working arrangements should go hand-in-hand with trust and autonomy – there’s no point permitting staff to work remotely if they are being micromanaged. 

Create a positive, comfortable working environment

Whether employees are working from home or the office you should make sure all employees are working in a comfortable environment where they can concentrate on their work.

Inform employees of the benefits of putting plants in their office, give them spaces to work alone and/or to socialise in the office, make sure they have good working equipment and that their setup is efficient for them.