How can leaders keep team members motivated in the absence of extrinsic rewards?

Two sticky notes. One says intrinsic motivation, the other says extrinsic motivation.

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One of my newest coaching clients is a first-time leader located in San Antonio, Texas. I’m sure you can picture it … the drawl, the boots, the big belt buckle, and the classic cowboy hat! OK he’s not wearing it in his LinkedIn profile photo, but he did wear it on one of our recent Zoom calls! 

When I checked in with him to see how things had been going since our previous meeting, he mentioned that he had one particular team member who didn’t seem to be responding to his leadership style in the same way everyone else had been. 

As we unpacked the situation, it was clear that Jethro had been attempting a one-size-fits-all approach to motivating his five team members. I immediately told him he was lucky that four of them had responded so positively, since when it comes to motivating individual team members, a cookie cutter approach doesn’t typically work. 

After a few more carefully worded (note that I didn’t say ‘leading’!) questions, we got to the crux of the situation, and it turned out that this was the first experience Jethro had had leading (and therefore trying to motivate) someone who wasn’t extrinsically motivated in any way. While his other four team members were all driven by external rewards, such as bonuses, monthly awards, or even just a brief moment in the spotlight (which are more easily measurable and can be used to incentivise certain behaviours), Savannah (I kid you not) wasn’t motivated by such tactics at all. 

As Jethro described the way Savannah had physically reacted to his proposed incentives, there was no question that she was an intrinsically motivated individual. 

“So that’s why she can appear to be so aloof and disengaged”, Jethro said. 

Slow down. Not so fast. 

I then explained how even after many years leading many people, it can still sometimes be difficult for a leader to determine whether a team member is aloof or disengaged as opposed to simply being intrinsically motivated. 

I ran some of the tell-tale signs of disengagement by him. Was Savannah not productive or delivering poor quality work? Was she not interacting with her peers? Did she have a negative attitude or low energy levels? Was she missing deadlines?  

When he answered “no” to all these questions (in fact he even admitted that the way she responded to his motivation style wasn’t so much a negative attitude towards her work or the team, but more just a personal reaction to a stretched target), Jethro came around to appreciate that Savannah is simply intrinsically motivated. She wasn’t like any of his other team members when it came to responding to incentives. 

As we talked more about Savannah’s work ethic, Jethro highlighted some of the more common traits of someone who is classically intrinsically motivated. Jethro shared that Savannah can be highly productive and focused on achieving her own personal goals (without the need for an incentive to be dangled in front of her); she has a great attitude towards her work, the team, and the organisation; it turns out that she’s probably the most curious member of his team; and she holds herself to extremely high standards and strives for excellence at all times. 

Leading team members who are purely intrinsically motivated can be challenging, as they are driven by their own internal rewards and typically won’t respond to external motivators. 

Intrinsically motivated individuals (like Savannah) are driven by a sense of accomplishment and personal development, which can be much harder to quantify and manage. Therefore, leaders must make a conscious effort to understand what motivates each individual team member and create a work environment that also supports those who are intrinsically motivated. 

However, identifying intrinsically motivated team members isn’t always easy, as they may not always explicitly express their motivations. 

As a leader, what traits, actions, or behaviours can you keep an eye out for that may suggest that a team member is more intrinsically motivated? 

Intrinsically motivated employees typically thrive when given a high degree of autonomy and the ability to make decisions about their work. Unlike their extrinsically motivated counterparts, they are often motivated by a sense of purpose and meaning in their work, and they value being part of a larger mission or vision and contributing to the team’s success as opposed to their own personal success. 

While not directly motivated by external rewards, intrinsically motivated employees still appreciate recognition and feedback on their work – but they prefer it to be shared in a private (one-to-one) setting as opposed to in the public spotlight. 

Intrinsic motivation isn’t all about rewards or incentives. In fact, over-reliance on extrinsic rewards can sometimes undermine intrinsic motivation. 

How can leaders keep team members motivated in the absence of extrinsic rewards? 

One strategy could be to provide those intrinsically motivated team members with opportunities for growth and development for example by offering them mentoring or coaching. This works because those who are intrinsically motivated typically demonstrate a growth mindset and are genuinely interested in learning new things. 

Creating a culture of curiosity can undoubtedly unlock potential in your intrinsically motivated team members.

Part of fostering a culture of inquisitiveness is to encourage your team members to be more comfortable asking questions – of themselves, of each other, of you, and of the business in general. 

Empowering intrinsically motivated team members to be curious is as important as prioritising your own level of curiosity around what motivates them as individuals. 

Although up to now they may have been more accustomed to looking to you for the answers, the evidence of a cultural shift will be when they are just as comfortable looking to you for the questions.  

Overall, while extrinsic motivation can certainly be a powerful driver of career success, there is evidence to suggest that intrinsically motivated employees can progress in their careers just as well. By providing a work environment that supports and fosters intrinsic motivation, leaders can help their team members thrive and achieve their career goals. 

Do you have any Savannahs in your team? 

Perhaps you’re still unsure. 

If or when you realise you do have intrinsically motivated employees in your midst, try to create an environment that supports their motivations and helps them stay engaged and productive.

Provide them with opportunities for autonomy, mastery, purpose, challenge, feedback, collaboration, and private (or personal) recognition. 

Remember hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping to keep team members motivated even in the absence of extrinsic rewards. 

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