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How Intrinsic Motivation Can Keep Us Engaged

August 5, 2019

Workplace Culture

We all recognise the importance of employee engagement. We know that keeping our people engaged in their work is a huge part of keeping them happy, loyal and of course, productive. In the super competitive world of business, it could be said that engagement is more important, and more worthy of our attention than it ever was before. The revolving door of retention keeps turning, with recruitment and on boarding being expensive processes.

So, we need to maintain an even greater focus on how our people interact with their role in the organisation. Are they engaged? Really engaged? How would we know? How do we find out? And most importantly, what do we do if they’re not?

Managers are often too busy to even question their people’s engagement. If the job’s getting done, they turn up every day and don’t complain, why worry? Why add to our already busy day thinking about engagement? So, we’re tempted to make the easy assumptions and hope for the best. Trouble is, with that attitude, ‘the best’ will never come. We’ll get ‘the average’ if anything. And we’d deserve nothing more.

So managers? Are your employees engaged?

First, if your workplace isn’t inclusive, open and transparent, you might never find out how engaged your people really are. They could just be going through the motions, doing their job, keeping their head down, hoping nobody notices them, hoping that they can fly under the management radar and just get through to the next payday without too much hassle. Maybe they’re just happily complacent and you, their manager, haven’t noticed because you’re complacent too.

It has to start with you. It’s you who, as their manager, has to motivate them, to push and encourage them, to support them and help them grow within the business. All of these elements are central to their engagement, so if you think your employees aren't engaged, maybe you should look at yourself first. Are you doing all you can to motivate them? Nobody’s suggesting that the boss should be your best friend. That never works, and the only people who are foolish enough to believe it are those David Brent characters we’ve all come across. Managers should be a critical friend always but never your best buddy.

Your employee's engagement is basically about one thing. The business. Employees who are well engaged are more likely to be happier, healthier, feel more fulfilled, and be more productive. So, businesses need to focus on engagement as a key part of their culture, rather than treating it as an added bonus. That means making engagement part of the overall strategy, and not just the responsibility of the HR department. It means investing in leadership programmes to ensure that leaders and managers have the tools and the skills needed to motivate.

Motivation is in us. It’s one of the five key areas of our emotional intelligence, along with Empathy, Social Skills, Self-Regulation and Self-Awareness. We’re human, driven by our emotions, and our emotional responses. Managers need to be in touch not only with their own emotions, but the emotions of their employees too. This is where motivation begins, by understanding the people you’re trying to motivate. Understanding how they work and what they think, how they act and what they want out of life. A relationship between management and their people should be founded on clear understanding. Motivation should come from there.

People want to feel like they make a difference. They need to know that what they do changes things, and that when they do it well, it doesn’t go unnoticed. We all need that recognition, especially in work. We want to feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. That we have a sense of purpose, and our work has real meaning. We want to broaden our experience, gain knowledge, learn new skills. We want to develop. So we need to be motivated, because when we stay motivated, we stay engaged.

Generally, there are two types of motivation. Extrinsic motivation is when we receive something external in exchange for our work, like a wage package. We receive it as a reward, but it’s not linked to the work specifically. Intrinsic motivation is a softer, more emotionally-based form of motivation. It’s about how we grow, how we evolve, both as individuals and in our work lives. This means that it’s a far more effective engagement tool than just giving someone an envelope full of cash. The cash is nice, yes, but what happens next? How do we go forward from that place? That’s the difference between these two forms of motivation.

So, it comes down, as it so often does, to culture. It means creating an environment and culture where employees feel supported and encouraged. Where they feel like they’ll be listened to. A culture which pushes them to innovate, to ask questions and to try new ideas. Intrinsic motivation is different for everyone as we all have different drivers though, so we need some strategies.

Recognising The Good Stuff

All success should be celebrated, no matter how small. When people feel like they’re succeeding, they’re far more likely to want to succeed again. And again. And again. It’s simple: recognise the good stuff, thank them, appreciate them, and they’ll stay engaged.

Don’t Worry About The Bad Stuff

Well, not all of it, anyway. There’s nothing wrong with the odd fail here and there. That’s how we grow. It creates new thinking. We learn and move on. Embracing these moments is what it’s all about. When people feel comfortable taking risks, and supported if they don’t pay off, then they’re more likely to try harder, and to try again.


This one is simple. Rocket science, it most certainly isn't. Management isn’t just about giving orders, and barking directions at people. Far from it. There has to be some incoming dialogue, some feedback coming back up the chain. How else would a manager know what’s going on in their team without giving that team the platform to be heard and understood?

Go Public With Your Praise

If someone does well, if a team is hitting its goals, meeting its targets, then tell people. Go public. Spread the praise around, using whatever channels you have, so that the whole organisation sees not only that team’s success, but the fact that you’re encouraging and supporting them. Praise is powerful when it comes to motivating people and keeping them engaged.

Let People See The Big Picture

Give your team a sense of belonging. Involve them in the big plans, the strategic stuff, to show them how their role fits into it. Let them see that their contribution is important and necessary. Who knows, they might have something to add. Something new to bring to the plan.

These are just a handful of ways where intrinsic motivation helps. Obviously, it's good to have an extrinsic element like a renumeration package in place. Nobody works for nothing, and we’ve all got bills to pay. But by recognising the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic, we put our people in the best position to grow and develop. We keep them motivated, and we keep them engaged. And that’s what we all want, at the end of the day.


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