Fresh out of college, Cory Althoff found himself with no job and no income. His political science degree wasn’t quite the career galvanizer he thought it would be. “I just didn’t have the skills employers were looking for,” Althoff said. 

Althoff, who was living in Silicon Valley at the time, felt highly motivated to get a job and earn money. Althoff, now senior vice president of coding systems at CompTIA, taught himself to code and launched a career as a software engineer.

The journey wasn’t 100 percent smooth. “I made a ton of mistakes,” said Althoff. Motivated to help budding tech-industry professionals learn from his missteps, he wrote The Self-Taught Computer Scientist: The Beginner’s Guide to Data Structures & Algorithms, which was published early in 2022.

Those touchpoints in Althoff’s career illustrate the two basic types of motivation: Intrinsic, or internal, and extrinsic, or external. The need to meet financial obligations was the external force that prompted him to switch careers. The desire to help others, an internal motivation, sparked the book. 

What Are Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations?

Intrinsic motivators stem from an internal factor, such as the need or desire to excel, feel good about oneself, meet a goal or fulfill part of one’s self. Extrinsic motivators are external forces, for instance quotas, the hope of a reward or fear of punishment. A motivator can be both intrinsic and extrinsic: Money is extrinsic, but the satisfaction of providing for one’s family is intrinsic.

Both motivators are critical to success. “A good balance of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators at work is ideal,” said Fran Maxwell, leader of the people advisory and organizational change proactive at Protiviti, a business consultancy base in Menlo Park, California. 

Which motivator is more powerful depends on the situation, Maxwell said. Intrinsic motivators can be more sustainable, as they tend to spring from someone’s personality or moral compass, “but I do think it depends on the personality type,” he said. Salespeople generally thrive on external motivators such as bonuses, which is why organizations often hold sales contests to motivate them. 

Whatever the motivator, organizations should identify and nurture them by asking or through personality assessments. “Adjusting to motivators is key to help assist in the overall productivity of the team,” Maxwell said.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are hardly mutually exclusive; they can blur to create a motivational shade of gray. Althoff’s book blended both motivators. In addition to fulfilling his need to help others, “it did help my career quite a bit,” said Althoff, who’s been featured in CNBC’s Make It newsletter and several other media outlets since the book was published. While paying bills was an external force in his career switch, it also offered the internal motivator of self-sufficiency. 

Before launching a detailed discussion of intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation, it helps to look at what constitutes motivation. “Motivators, in general, provide an incentive for completing a task,” said Dan Moshavi, dean of the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business at San Jose State University. “One can think about motivators as forces that act on or within a person to initiate a behavior,” he said.

 

A chart mapping out the spectrum of motivations from amotivation, extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation.
A Taxonomy of Human Motivation | Image: 

What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is generally considered the more sustainable motivator because it stems from internal factors or forces, for instance completing a task because it’s personally fulfilling; the satisfaction of setting and reaching long- or short-term goals; excelling as a point of pride; and earning more money for the feeling of safety and security or satisfaction in providing for one’s family. 

“There’s been a shift towards not wanting work to be everything.”

Intrinsic motivation can guide corporate HR efforts. Take the current trend toward enabling employees to live their purpose. Perks such as volunteer days or participating in corporate philanthropy help employees live their purpose, or, in other words, use work to satisfy internal needs and longings in addition to earning a living. 

“There’s been a shift towards not wanting work to be everything,” said Jordan Nielsen, assistant professor of management at Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana. “It seems like a step back where people are saying, ‘even if this work is really meaningful, I want to have a life outside of work,’” he said. Company-provided resources, like fully distributed offices, allow employees to live where they want and can help workers achieve balance. 

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What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation comes from external factors and is the more precarious of the two. Hope of a reward (the proverbial carrot) or fear of punishment (the proverbial stick) are both extrinsic motivators. Nielsen defines extrinsic motivation as a means to an end. “Money and status are the first two things that usually pop into people’s heads,” he said. 

 

Self-Determination

That’s hardly the end of the discussion. Human emotions are complex and so are motivators, so much so that psychologists Richard Ryan and Edward Deci put them on a continuum. 

The continuum that illustrates their Self Determination Theory of Motivation begins on one end with amotivation, or a lack of motivation, and ends on the other with intrinsic motivation, which Ryan and Deci label as “interest, enjoyment and/or inherent satisfaction.”

In between are four gradations of extrinsic motivation, ranging from performing a task out of fear or punishment or hope of reward (external regulation) to performing a task because it aligns with one’s needs or values. “Technically, Ryan and Deci call extrinsic motivation anything that isn’t fun, interesting or enjoyable,” Nielsen said. 

Prosocial motivation is another variant that has powerful potential, and that can take on both intrinsic and extrinsic forms. Prosocial means the care and concern for the wellbeing of others and can stem from either external or internal factors, Nielsen said. Being coerced to volunteer (extrinsic) can create internal conflict and uncomfortableness. Charitable work done voluntarily (intrinsic), on the other hand, satisfies an internal need. 

 

How Companies Motivate Employees 

Paychecks, benefits, perks: The effort to motivate people permeates nearly every aspect of human-resources efforts. And no wonder. “Motivation produces,” write Ryan and Deci. Here are ways companies strive to motivate employees. 

 

Money 

“Money is always going to matter, because (employees) need resources to do stuff,” Nielsen said. That said, if saving and making money is literally a company’s bottom line, then it only goes so far. “There’s got to be something more intrinsic or the company’s not going to be around for very long,” he said. “You’ll have a hard time attracting people who have values.” 

Paychecks, bonuses, commissions and other monetary forms of compensation also only go so far as motivators. “Money has a short lifespan,” said Leslie Mizerak, a coach with Boston-based edtech company Nimblywise, though the science on money as an external motivator is changing. In 2010, a study indicated that after a salary of $75,000 ($90,000 in today’s dollars), the law of diminishing returns kicked in, and that people didn’t gain more happiness as they gained more dollars.

A 2022 study, though, found that happiness significantly increases as incomes rise above $80,000 a year. The researcher, Mathew Killingsworth, arrived at that conclusion after polling 33,000 Americans via Track Your Happiness, an app he developed.

 

Corporate Culture

A healthy corporate culture can stimulate intrinsic motivation. “You have people who are able to do their work because they care about the work itself,” Nielsen said. “That intrinsic motivator is going to often be the difference between a company that’s really innovating and doing cool stuff and one that isn’t,” he said. 

 

Wellness Programs

Free exercise classes, smoking-cessation programs, weight-loss seminars — all can give employees the warm feeling that their employer really cares about them. That is probably true; what’s also true is that wellness programs save companies money, as much as 25 percent in terms of decreased absenteeism, lower healthcare costs and lower worker’s comp costs, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control study

Wellness programs, then, are the perfect example of the melding of intrinsic and extrinsic motivators: Companies feel good by offering these programs to employees, and reap the external benefit of cost savings. 

 

Workplace Perks

Dog-friendly offices, ping-pong tables, and free food. “It seemed like a great idea 10 years ago, and that stuff does seem nice,” Nielsen said. That said, he’s seen no evidence that workplace thingamajigs keep people at an organization. “It’s superficial stuff,” he said. “People care much more about stuff that really matters, like the work itself and whether they can express their values through work.”

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Motivating individuals

Identifying and nurturing motivation is “imperative,” said Mizerak. “That’s where we get the best performance, the highest level or results, buy-in loyalty and the highest level of engagement—all those amazing words come from good motivation.” It’s why managers ask about goals at one on ones and annual performance reviews. 

Motivating each and every employee can be tricky, as many factors, including rewards, personal goals and enjoyment, and personality combine to motivate individuals, said Moshavi of San Jose State University. “One of the challenges organizations face is that individuals are motivated in different ways by different things, so it’s tough to create a ‘one size fits all’ set of incentives, although they try,” he said. Good managers, he added, learn over time what motivates employees. “Listening, experimenting and observing are key,” he said. 

“Listening, experimenting and observing are key.”

Whether intrinsic or extrinsic motivators are more effective depends on the individual employee. Bonuses can positively affect short-term productivity, while making sure someone’s work aligns with their interest can spark greater engagement and company loyalty, Moshavi said. What HR professionals refer to as “person-job fit,” meaning the alignment of one’s skills with the required tasks, can also strongly motivate or, in the case of a poor fit, demotivate, Moshavi said. 

Another challenge is that motivations change over time. Early in his career, teacher ratings, awards, peer reviews and other external factors were highly motivating. Later in his career, he pivoted to administration as his needs became more intrinsic. “I get great satisfaction from recognizing, rewarding and praising others,” he said. “But that’s me — I know folks who become more extrinsically motivated over time, constantly striving for the next promotion.”

 

How to Identify Your Motivators 

Even if tech employees work at a company that excels at motivation, they must identify and nurture motivation on their own to create successful and satisfying careers. Paying attention to other’s observations, examining goals and past motivators are some of the ways to figure out what drives you. 

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations

  • Intrinsic: Enjoyable, satisfying, fulfilling, fun, interesting
  • Extrinsic: Payment, fear of punishment, hope of reward, social acceptance

 

Observations

Katie Long enjoyed playing sports as a child; her mother often commented on how the prospect of a win motivated Long. And throughout her life, Long enjoyed setting and reaching goals. “It was pretty motivating for me to see if I could do it,” she said. 

Right out of college, Long worked for a media company. She liked the work but wasn’t sure it was her life’s calling. As she worked in media, taking advantage of the opportunity to learn the business, she was introduced to the world of sales. Bingo: The competitive nature of sales struck a motivational chord, as did the chance to earn more money. “Previous managers pointed out that I was definitely motivated to earn more in terms of compensation,” said Long, head of sales at Beachfront, a convergent TV ad platform based in New York. 

Now, as a manager, Long tries to spot and nurture motivators for her eight team members. “There’s always going to be tasks they have to accomplish as part of their role,” she said. “But I think it’s my job to align opportunities with those individuals because that’s where you see really great success.” 

 

Past Motivators

Feeling a little lackluster in your current role? Think back to situations or projects that ignited your passions in the past, Mizerak said. 

Here’s another reason to consider past motivations: Motivators change over time and over the span of a career. Money, status and a clear career path might have motivated you as a college graduate; decades later, your desire to mentor might be more motivating. “Originally, it was about my own personal growth and learning new things,” said Mizerak of her own career. “Now I get much more joy from helping other people grow and develop.” 

 

Goals 

Where do you see yourself in five years?” is a time-honored interview and performance-review question that gets to the heart of intrinsic motivation. “It tells me what you’re looking for,” said Mizerak. The answer provides the opportunity to dig deeper. For instance, do you see yourself as a manager one day? You might be acting out of either extrinsic (more pay, higher status in the company) or intrinsic (the desire to support a team) motivators, she said.

On the flip side, thinking about why you don’t meet some goals can help determine your motivators, said Cory Althoff, the self-taught software engineer. If you’re missing deadlines on projects that really don’t float your boat, perhaps the intrinsic motivator is missing and it’s time to ask your manager for an external motivator. Or if you’re working just for the paycheck, and your dream is to save the world, it might be time to consider a new job at a nonprofit. “Think about what your actual goal is and if it aligns with what motivates you,” Althoff said. 

Another goal-aligned tactic: Consider what you do when you set a goal. Do you keep it to yourself or share it with the world in hopes that the world will hold you accountable? The first approach is intrinsic, the second, extrinsic. 

 

Hobbies and Pastimes 

What you do off the clock can help you determine what motivates you, said Althoff. Gamers, for instance, might be intrinsically motivated by the desire to win and the thrill of meeting challenges; tech employees who moonlight might be extrinsically motivated to earn more money and/or intrinsically motivated to work on projects more interesting than what the day gig offers. “Ask yourself what you do for fun and why,” Althoff said. 

Whatever motivators you land on, they are almost guaranteed to act as a key that unlocks career potential. 

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