Decades of research have brought attention to extrinsic motivation, or the carrot and stick model. We know if/then rewards will work for simple tasks when validation is offered for why the task is important and people are encouraged to complete the tasks in their own manner. However, we also know if/then rewards suppress creativity by narrowing one’s focus toward earning the reward. Extrinsic motivation is no longer the key to engaging employees.


Today, William Castellano of Rutgers Business School has predicted that almost half of the United States workforce is composed of knowledge workers with complex skills. Extrinsic motivation shifts the focus away from an internal drive of creative problem solving to an external need of earning rewards. Unfortunately, all of us have experienced these if/then situations in today’s work environment.

The author of Drive, Daniel Pink, explains that individuals find flow when assignments are concerned less with external rewards and more with the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself. How can we help organizations create the ideal environment for employees where they will experience intrinsic motivation? Building a culture that supports and enhances employee engagement is one of our main efforts at SGEi.

Increase Engagement through Intrinsic Motivation


Pink believes organizations can increase employee engagement by giving individuals autonomy in their work and the resources to experience mastery and purpose. Autonomy is simply having self-direction over one’s time, task, team, and technique. Mastery explains one’s internal drive to be good at something, as Malcolm Gladwell highlights, to put 10,000 hours into being an expert and master. Mastery is developed from deliberate practice in one’s field and continuing to learn and grow for personal and professional development.

Purpose describes one’s need for contributing to the greater good—for being a part of something bigger than oneself. It is human nature to contribute to a cause greater than ourselves and to make a difference—to positively impact others and society. Today, Pink emphasizes that there is misalignment between what science knows and what business does. Consider the following key points to develop intrinsic motivation, which will ultimately lead to increases in employee engagement, productivity, and satisfaction in the workplace.

Creating Conditions for the Best Work

work environment

Embrace Autonomy

Trust that you have hired the right people for the job, and leave them to it. Give your employees autonomy to manage their time, task, technique, and team. Give them control over their work environment. Allow employees to choose how, when, and where they will work (and with whom they will work). If you believe you already do this, then ask your employees how much autonomy they have over time, task, technique, and team. You may be surprised with the responses.

To learn more about selecting and hiring the right people, check out Thomas Martin’s recent blog, Hiring for Cultural Fit.

Encourage Mastery

Continuously challenge your employees. Challenge them to learn and to grow in their work assignments and by learning from others. Build diverse teams so individuals can generate ideas based on others’ experiences. Allow employees to formally and informally train each other. Create a culture of learning in your organization, and set aside time for employees to attend external conferences and experience diverse learning opportunities. Invest in the continuous education of your organizational members.

Emphasize Purpose

Bring purpose to your organization’s attention. Facilitate conversations about the purpose of individual roles, teams, departments, the organization, your industry, and the impact your business has on society. Determine how your employees align with a common purpose. Collectively create a mission, vision, and values that align with what you are in business to do and employees’ beliefs. SGEi’s Founder & President, Shane Green, works closely with c-level executive teams to define their mission, vision, and values: for more information on defining your internal culture, check out his blog Culture Hacker.

Pink explains, “The most successful people, the evidence shows, often aren’t directly pursuing conventional notions of success. They’re working hard and persisting through difficulties because of their internal desire to control their lives, learn about their world, and accomplish something that endures.”

When considering your own personal drive for motivation, ask yourself: Was I better today than I was yesterday? Have I contributed to something beyond myself? Have I done all that I can, and have I done it well?