Enable your employees to be the first line of defence with Mental Health First Aid™Learn more ->
Written By
Team Intellect

My team isn’t driven at work. How do I motivate employees intrinsically?

Get the mental health support your company needs

Table of Content

Table of Contents

You feel that your staff aren’t doing the best that they can—this could indicate that your employees are not motivated at work. We throw this word around all the time, but what does it actually mean?

Motivation is the energy your employees put into their work on a day-to-day basis, and has been defined as “the process that initiates, guides, and maintains goal-oriented behaviours.” Declining employee productivity and rising absenteeism numbers could be signs that employees are not motivated at work.

Most employers are familiar with using extrinsic means, like compensation, to drive staff, but few know how to motivate employees intrinsically.

According to Anthony Wong, an abuse counsellor and co-founder of the Nanyang Psychology Academy Singapore, intrinsic motivation has a lot to do with our five basic needs: love and belonging, freedom, fun, survival, and power. When employees are able to fulfil one or more of these needs through their jobs, they become more determined to do their best work.

The pitfalls of extrinsic motivation

One of the biggest mistakes a company can make is treating employee motivation, or the lack thereof, as a human resources problem.

No doubt, extrinsic motivators like money and employee benefits are a great start. Alas, reward- and punishment-based incentives may not engage employees in a meaningful and sustainable manner.

Why is that so? Well, people respond to extrinsic motivators differently. For example, performance-based bonuses may motivate a middle-age employee who needs to provide for their family and has a high need for survival. But a fresh graduate who is free of financial obligations may not value them as much.

“It’s like smoking,” said Anthony Wong, referencing how Singapore discourages smoking by placing graphic reminders on cigarette packaging.

“Just like drinking, there’s a social aspect to smoking that brings people together. The desire for people to smoke together and feel a sense of love and belonging is greater than the initial discomfort they might feel upon looking at grotesque images.” 

Anthony also pointed out that extrinsic rewards lose their value over time. That $500 bonus every quarter, for example, eventually loses its appeal over time as employees’ needs evolve. The monetary rewards that work today come with an expiry date, and can become expensive for employers to keep up.

Understanding intrinsic motivation

To sustain employee motivation, employers need to focus on intrinsic motivation, or the drive that comes from within. Below are some examples of intrinsic motivators:

  • Learning
  • Attitude
  • Achievement
  • Creativity 
  • Psychological fulfilment

Anthony shared a story of how he appreciated a coworker who always helped him with his claims:

“She said, ‘I always thought my work was administrative but you (changed my mind).’”

When employees see the impact they are making, they become more dedicated to their jobs. They don’t burn out as quickly and are more likely to persevere in adversity. This paves the way for employee engagement across the board. 

Intrinsic motivation and employee engagement

Motivation leads to engagement, which in turn leads to a business’s success. Studies have shown that highly motivated and therefore engaged workforces are 21% more profitable and see 24% to 59% less talent turnover

The reverse is true. Low levels of motivation translate to high turnover rates, increasing stress for both long-term employees and new joiners. This has ripple effects on aspects including organisational culture. As unmotivated and disengaged employees tend to be more protective of themselves, they may contribute to a culture of blaming rather than one of learning. A toxic culture, as we already know, is detrimental to the bottom line.

Engaged behavioursDisengaged behaviours
– Optimistic
– Team-oriented
– Goes above and beyond
– Solutions-oriented 
– Collaborative
– Shows a passion for learning
– Passes along credit and accepts responsibility
– Pessimistic
– Self-centred
– High absenteeism/ quiet quitting
– Negative attitude
– Egocentric
– Overfixation on monetary rewards
– Covets credit but passes along blame

How to motivate employees intrinsically

Again, employee motivation and engagement is everyone’s interest, not just HR’s. An organisation may employ:

  • Company strategies
  • HR strategies
  • Management and team strategies
  • Individual strategies

Management and team strategies

There are four key areas that managers can focus on when it comes to nurturing motivation and engagement within teams.

Trust– Solicit and act on feedback
– Be appreciative and grateful
– Trust employees first
– Use a coaching methodology (not discipline)
– Be inclusive
– Share your vision
– Be available for the team
Communication– Communicate frequently
– Be transparent, honest, and direct
– Be a genuine and active listener
– Be empathetic (not personal or intrusive)
– Be employee-focused, team-focused, and future-focused
– Consider your soft skills or non-verbal cues
Performance metrics– Recognition
– Peer relationships (measure trust, reliability, accountability) 
– Professional development
– Work-life balance, wellbeing 
– Autonomy
– Benefits and perks
– Workplace culture
Feedback and opportunities– 360 reviews
– Performance reviews
– Employee satisfaction/ pulse surveys
– Feedback boxes
– Open door opportunities

Trust and communication are deeply entwined. Where there is trust, there is psychological safety, empowering team members to communicate their ideas and opinions.

In these communications, our choice of words and delivery matter. When providing feedback or giving critique, avoid blaming or putting down another person, said Anthony, as negative emotions have a lasting impact on our psyches.

“Think of 100 things in your life that didn’t go well versus 100 that did. You’ll be able to list the bad things faster. It’s just how our brain works,” he said, reminding managers to communicate the wins, the losses, and steps for improvement.

Lastly, managers can look out for other opportunities to motivate their employees intrinsically that better suit their needs. Other than monetary motivators, these can look like offering flexible working arrangements or opportunities for personal and professional development.

Other opportunities:

  • Two-way feedback on engagement, projects, and daily tasks
  • Team building sessions
  • Clarity: Understanding broader scopes of work 
  • Consideration and contribution to projects/tasks
  • Sharing personal interests and passions
  • Personal development (i.e. online courses, workshops) 

Individual strategies

It’s not just companies that benefit from motivated employees. Individuals stand to gain, too. After all, people spend most of their waking hours at work, and it’s a drag to find no motivation, happiness, or fulfilment in it.

There are a few things employees can do to keep themselves engaged:

Self-AlignmentSocial influences
– Set small, measurable goals
– Celebrate small wins
– Implement effective rewards
– Engage in self-care
– Reflect on work performance
– Encourage teamwork 
– Get constructive feedback from coworkers
– Share strategies with co-workers

To achieve these things, individuals and teams have to practise self-awareness and self-compassion. 

For instance, new parents may review their goals when they have just returned from parental leave. Within teams, managers can also promote work-life balance by discouraging members from replying to work-related messages after hours. Healthy boundaries protect employees from burnout, and their employers’ care and concern go a long way to sustain motivation. 

When the going gets tough, don’t forget to give yourself the recognition you deserve—every day you show up at work is a win in and of itself.

Written by

A healthy company is a happy company

Employees need mental wellbeing support now more than ever. With Intellect, you can give them access to the Mental healthcare they need, when they need it.