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What Works Best in Motivating Employees: Intrinsic or Extrinsic?

Working long hours was not uncommon to Kyle.  He had been working with Wackie TEK for over five years in a variety of positions.  Kyle always took great pride in his work, making sure it was not only technically correct, he also coordinated with others on his team, as well as others in the department.  Kyle took special effort to make sure that whatever he was working on looked professional and matched Wackie TEK's brand identity.

Kyle had been working on a training manual for some new software being rolled out to their customers in the next several weeks.  He had been working on this manual for over six months and had spent countless hours working nights and weekends, getting feedback from others in different parts of the country.  When he turned the final product in to his department manager, Darren, two weeks ahead of schedule, he was excited and somewhat relieved.

Being under the gun to meet the deadline, Darren stopped Kyle in the hallway and said “Thanks for getting me the manual on time, Kyle.”  The next week, Darren sent Kyle a $25 gift card for a local steak house. Being a vegetarian, Kyle thanked Darren for the gift card and promptly gave it to his brother.

Employee motivators

What went wrong here?

To stimulate and motivate team members, it is vital to know more and more about them.  There are two key types motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic.  Let’s look at how they differ and compare their strengths and weaknesses.

Extrinsic motivators are incentives like gift cards, bonuses, lunches, etc.  These motivators work and last as long as the extrinsic value is present.  In short, once the gift card is used, the motivation wears off. These motivators are awesome for quick bursts, and smaller accomplishments.  It is also important to recognize that while extrinsic motivators can be very powerful for some team members, others may think less of them.  In Kyle’s case, the gift card would have been a nice idea if Darren had known, or remembered, that Kyle was a vegetarian.

This is where knowing more about your team members on a personal basis is vital for a successful leader.  One great way to accomplish this is through a tool I call the "My Favorites Book".  A "My Favorites Book" starts out with a simple sheet of paper where the employee fills in his or her name at the top and answers a series of questions like:

My favorite:

  • Chocolate
  • Candy - not chocolate
  • Fast food restaurant
  • Casual dining restaurant
  • Flower or plant
  • Topping on a pizza
  • Soft drink
  • Non-carbonated drink (stay away from alcohol)

These are just a few examples. You can easily create several on your own that make sense for your business or region of the country.  Once you have everyone’s answers, you simply place them in a 3-ring binder and make sure the binder is accessible to everyone on the team.  

This way, when someone wants to say thank you to another team member, they can go to the "My Favorites Book" and find a more personal way to show appreciation.

This is an example of both an extrinsic and, to some degree, an intrinsic motivation tool.

Let’s look at intrinsic motivators.

These are simple, heartfelt ways to recognize someone for something they have done. A truly intrinsic motivator is not a ‘tactic’ or a ‘strategy’.  Rather, it is something that is done because it is the right thing to do.  

A simple example--if a team member does something slightly above what is expected you might hand write them a thank you note on a ‘post-it-note’, and post it on their computer screen.  Or you could send them an email of thanks.

Now, if that employee goes above and beyond (as Kyle did) and gets a major project in two weeks ahead of schedule and you leave him a post-it-note then – well, you get the picture.  In this case, you will want to do a little more, perhaps a larger recognition ceremony is appropriate.  You could send a thank you email and be sure to CC the higher ups in the organization. Or, even better, send an email to the senior management team and copy Kyle.  In Kyle’s case, he had worked a lot of long hours and many evenings.  You might want to send a note home to Kyle’s children or partner and tell them how much you appreciate his efforts on the project.

The idea here is to think like a Hallmark movie; tug a little at what truly makes the person feel good about themselves and their work.  The better they feel about the work, the more engaged they will be.  The more engaged, the better the productivity, the stronger the morale, and the lower the team turnover will be.

Bottom line, both kinds of motivators work. Just make sure you are using the appropriate level of motivation to reward what your employees accomplished. Remember, behavior rewarded equals behavior repeated.