What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Written by Scott Wilson

what is extrinsic motivation

What is extrinsic motivation? An extrinsic motivation definition is any sort of motivation that is primarily driven by rewards that are offered by an outside party. While any sort of reward can drive extrinsic motivation, from kind words to financial benefits, it is distinct in that it must be an award made by another party, not part of some internal or personal drive.

Motivation is one of the key issues keeping leaders up at night. Trends like quiet quitting, generational communication issues, and a tight labor market all contribute to making workforce motivation a tough haul right now.

For many organizational leaders, that makes figuring out the best way to keep teams fired up job #1 right now. No matter what kind of business, non-profit, or public agency you head up, you have to get your staff to buy in to your plans before you can get much done at all.

Fortunately, there has been a lot of critical theoretical and practical work done on this issue over the years. That means the information and tools you need are accessible when it comes to understanding and using intrinsic and extrinsic motivators to keep your team happy, on top of their game, and all pulling in the same direction.

Intrinsic vs Extrinsic Motivation in Organizational Leadership

intrinsic vs extrinsic motivationIntrinsic and extrinsic motivation are both useful tools for organizational leaders. In that sense, there isn’t really an extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation argument. Most leaders use both forms in combination to motivate and inspire their teams.

The main difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is the source. An extrinsic motivator is a reward that comes from outside the individual person. That is where the most obvious motivational tools come from for most leaders. Extrinsic motivation examples include:

  • Salary and bonuses
  • Public recognition and awards
  • Team parties or retreats

Extrinsic motivators don’t need to be a tangible reward, either. Another extrinsic motivation example is simply offering a thank you or telling someone they have done a good job.

An intrinsic motivator is an internal force that drives individuals, entirely apart from any rewards or recognition they might receive. Intrinsic motivation examples include:

  • A desire to succeed at a particular task or goal
  • Self-improvement
  • Personal standards of work or achievement

Although it might not be obvious, good organizational leaders can also use intrinsic motivators to achieve their goals.

This is possible because organizational leadership teaches leaders to develop a deep understanding of their staff and to form insights about their behavior and motivators. That includes internal factors that drive them.

There is potential for good leaders with this knowledge to work carefully to encourage or discourage the various intrinsic motivators their staff already have to align them with organizational goals. Just as importantly, it can influence how you assign your team to various jobs and objectives.

Intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation can both be valuable ways to keep your team primed and excited to meet your organizational goals. But by its nature, extrinsic motivation is going to have more options for propelling your team to new heights.

Exploring the Original Roots of Extrinsic Motivation

roots of extrinsic motivationAlthough it’s a very basic concept, the roots of extrinsic motivation in both theory and practice actually involve an exploration of psychological principles.

There is even a definition of extrinsic motivation specific to psychology separate from the sort of practical definition that is most useful for leaders. But rather than focusing on the formal definitions, it’s more useful to understand how psychologists have studied and explored extrinsic motivation.

Extrinsic motivation is a concept that emerged from the psychological school of behaviorism. Behaviorism is the idea that all behaviors that a person engages in are driven by antecedents and consequences… conditions that set the possibility of a behavior and then either reinforce or extinguish that behavior.

Extrinsic motivation is a type of operant conditioning, which are the collection of rewards or punishments that form the consequence.

Operant conditioning: A type of learning where specific behaviors are encouraged or discouraged through positive or negative reinforcement as a consequence of that behavior.

Most organizational leaders don’t think of their role as conditioning their team, but in psychological terms, that’s exactly what an extrinsic motivator does. Positive reinforcements include things like performance bonuses or promotions; negative reinforcements include reprimands or demotion.

Although these can all seem like perfectly natural and even normal processes in the course of running an organization, well-trained organizational leaders understand the subtle psychology going on as those motivators are applied.

Finding the Meaning of Extrinsic Motivation in a Leadership Context

meaning of extrinsic motivationIt can help to look at some intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation examples to understand how these can work together.

If you know that one individual on your team has a strong internal drive toward perfection, you might assign that person to handle finish work, polishing a product to its best just before delivery to a client. Further, because of that intrinsic motivation, you might be mostly hands-off during that process, trusting that intrinsic perfectionist drive to be enough to meet your objectives.

For a staffer with less core attention to detail, you may understand that additional extrinsic motivators and more supervision are necessary to achieve the same results. You might use verbal reinforcement when that worker successfully completes a finishing task.

There are a million scenarios that offer examples of extrinsic motivation, because every individual and every leadership challenge is unique.

That means it’s less important to find examples of extrinsic motivators, and more important to simply understand your team on a personal level. Once you understand what makes any of your employees tick, then the question becomes less of “what is an extrinsic motivator?” and more of “how can I help Carol achieve her goals most effectively?”

The kind of exploration of psychological and organizational behavior that come with an organizational leadership degree make this second nature. Your theoretical training in intrinsic and extrinsic motivators blend together into finding the right combination of motivational techniques to lead your team to the next level.