Why is Understanding Motivation So Important?

Understanding motivation provides valuable insights into the human psyche. It explains why people set goals and strive for achievement. And when we better understand the sources of motivation, what increases or decreases it, and why some types of motivation are more beneficial than others, we are poised to maximize its benefits.

Those benefits are visible everywhere. When people are motivated, they can adapt and function productively, and maintain their equilibrium when faced with a changing stream of opportunities and threats. With high-quality motivation, we can thrive, whereas, without it, we can barely survive. Often this is no more apparent than in the workplace.

Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic Motivation compels behavior in response to an external stimulus, cajoling the person to do something in hopes of receiving a reward or avoiding an unpleasant outcome.

Examples of extrinsic motivation:

  • Reading a book in preparation for taking a test
  • Exercising to fit into your clothes
  • Cleaning up your house because your mother-in-law is coming to visit

Intrinsic Motivation

On the other hand, when you are intrinsically motivated, your behavior is compelled by an internal desire to do something for its own sake, such as personal pleasure or satisfaction.

Examples of intrinsic motivation:

  • Reading a book because you enjoy the story or want to learn something
  • Exercising because you feel better when you are healthy
  • Cleaning your home because it gives the satisfaction of living in a clean house

Which One is Better?

It might seem that intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic motivation. Wouldn’t it be better to do everything because it is the right thing to do? But, unfortunately, most of us don’t live in a Motivation Utopia. And being extrinsically motivated isn’t necessarily about being bad, it’s about being human.

Sometimes, to get the job done or complete a project, you need your manager’s praise or a potential raise or commission. To master material when you are in school or college, without the grade, there are many tests for which you just wouldn’t study.

So, either type of motivation, whether it is extrinsic or intrinsic, can be good and helpful. It just depends on the circumstance. The key is to figure out which type of motivation will work in any particular situation.

Which Motivation Fits Best into Our Economy

Subsequent to the initial success of the industrial revolution, which unleashed massive growth and economic output for nations around the world, came Fredrick Taylor articulating the benefits of the assembly line. Taylor was meticulous in his study of efficiency. And he was soon followed by Henry Ford and others. Increasingly specialized jobs were created that led to greater and greater efficiencies.

Amongst Taylor’s findings was that compensating people with bonuses which were directly related to output increased output. What followed was the logical extension. Leading companies began to pay more lucrative bonuses in an effort to continuously raise output. This became a widely accepted model for extrinsic motivation.

Today, our workplace is dominated by variations on this theme and is packed with extrinsic motivators. It is quite common for a company to devise imaginative and lucrative bonus schemes predicated on the presumption that those bonuses will increase output and profits.

The observation that, for repetitive jobs which don’t require thought or innovation, extrinsic motivators will drive increased output has been corroborated through empirical studies.

However, there is a growing shift away from this model as our workplace gradually transitions to a more knowledge-based and skill-based worker economy, while repetitive manufacturing jobs become more and more automated. Consequently, the effectiveness of extrinsic motivation is beginning to wane.

In fact, once the job requires higher-level skills and thinking, not only does extrinsic motivation become ineffective, but actually inhibits performance. Why would this be?

Teresa M. Amabile, one of the authoritative researchers in this area, provides a model of what drives these workers. Her research found that intrinsic motivators are far more important than extrinsic ones, for creative workers whose productivity is based upon their knowledge and skills.

Intrinsic Motivation: Energizing your Career

Daniel Pink has made these discoveries regarding intrinsic motivation popular in his highly acclaimed book DRiVE in which he emphasizes how important it is to create an environment where the employees are able to pursue Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose so that they will consistently be motivated to deliver high performance.


Pink defines autonomy as the desire to direct our own lives as opposed to being directed by others. He claims that granting employees autonomy is diametrically opposed to the classical view of management which prefers employees to “comply” with their job requirements. However, if managers are truly interested in their employees being more engaged in their work, then increasing autonomy is the path to get there.


According to Pink, mastery is the innate human desire to continually grow in and acquire mastery at something that matters. He argues that people love to “get better at stuff.” Personal achievement and progress provide immense satisfaction and motivation. Providing employees the opportunity to grow and enjoy a sense of progress at work kindles their inner drive.


Pink explains purpose as the deep need we all have to do things in service of something transcendent, larger than our personal mundane objectives. People intrinsically want to do things not just for personal aggrandizement, but that have some ultimate value. Employees need to know and understand the vision and mission of the company, and appreciate how their work helps to fulfill these.

Do We Seek Compliance or Engagement?

Pink puts it very bluntly. “The opposite of autonomy is control. And since they rest at opposite poles of the behavioral continuum, they lead us toward quite different destinations. Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement. And engagement leads to mastery, and the desire to be more productive and effective.”

“Whereas Motivation 2.0 sought compliance, Motivation 3.0 seeks engagement. And only engagement can produce mastery. And that pursuit of mastery, a crucial but often dormant part of our third drive, has become a vital necessity in becoming successful in today’s economy.”