Joy is not in things; it is in us. ⁓ Richard Wagner


Slowly climbing to the 24th floor I observed the people coming in and out of the office elevator. Regular morning crowd with dark suits and ties, elegant dresses, crisp-clean shirts, and blouses only concealed what I was curiously trying to detect on their faces – What motivates them to get up early in the morning, shave and shower, get elegantly dressed, leave their homes, come to the office, and be productive and creative. Is it really the money and all the things that money brings, or there is something more to it, something deeper and more fulfilling. Could it be that their motivation comes from within, from genuine care about what they do?

A discrete bell sound indicated arrival to the 24th floor. Leaving the elevator I left behind also the thoughts about work motivation and ways to inspire employees to be creative and consistently produce at their highest potential. A sequence of awaiting meetings took me away from the topic of motivation to some more mundane topics of contract negotiations, IT project initiation, new application deployment, and finally to negotiation about holiday schedules.

Still, that early morning thought was still with me. Meetings always offer an excellent forum for showing and proving your point, your view, your arguments, your personality, and your motivation. People with a tendency to be negative somehow get drawn to financial reasons why something cannot be done, emphasize lack of time for projects to be properly completed, or not enough employees to work on the issue. Their obvious pessimism looks for extrinsic, outside incentives as motivators for completion of almost any given task or challenge. Those external motivators easily turn into de-motivators.

Extrinsic or outside incentives can bring results because they provide a quick and visible reward for performing a specific task or demonstrating a specific behavior. As such, they are tempting to give, as well as to receive. Extrinsic incentives are easy to offer because they can be as simple as offering an extra half-hour to someone’s lunch breaks or offering some financial incentive. With such extrinsic motivation, we are doing something that we may not want to do, or not be at all interested in, so we are doing it as a chore.

Studying something at the university that we don`t really like and find boring, but we need to complete that course in order to get a diploma, or taking a job in sales because there is potential for some high commissions, but we actually hate sales, are just some of many examples of extrinsic incentives. They can be quite good for getting short-term results, but research shows that extrinsic rewards are not as effective as long-term motivators and they do not produce a long-term behavioral change. Simply put, they work for only short periods of time.

Intrinsic or internal incentives trigger a personal response that motivates the individuals to become involved for personal growth, pleasure, satisfaction, or purpose, for making a difference, or for some other usually only themselves known intangible reasons. Research demonstrates that intrinsic motivation tends to be much stronger than an extrinsic one because it personally connects an individual to a specific task or behavior. Using previous examples, intrinsic motivator for someone to study something would be a deep personal interest in a specific subject, love of communication with customers, or challenge of making a sale.

There are at least three basic types of intrinsic incentives:

  • Opportunity to learn something new (pleasure of learning)
  • Challenge to accomplish something not done before (pleasure to surpass oneself)
  • Chance to experience positive stimulation (sensory and aesthetic pleasure)

At work, we should look for something that really makes us interested in that given task, project, or a simple task. To stimulate an intrinsic response from our colleagues at work, we should target our offered incentives to what drives a particular person to succeed. To do that, we need to really know the person. It is insufficient to know just the job the person is doing. We need that touch of personal communication and emotional intelligence, and we need to put it in action. At workplace, getting people motivated is hard enough, but keeping them motivated is even harder.

Examples of intrinsic incentives are many and usually very different. Someone might be doing something just because he or she thinks it’s the right thing to do, because of altruistic reasons or to demonstrate solidarity, not because of a promised financial reward, job promotion or a material gain. Often it is just a sense of personal accomplishment for managing to complete a task that was regarded as “impossible”. Intrinsic motivation is always based on our desire to do something for ourselves. Research tells us that people are most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself and not by external incentives or pressures. Although extrinsic rewards have been found to reduce intrinsic motivation it is not the case in all circumstances. In some cases, proper combination of external and internal motivators can result with positive outcome but it has to be done in such way that the effects of extrinsic rewards do not inhibit the intrinsic motivation for engagement in the task.

A classical example could be when a creative worker shows special interest and gets engaged on a task or a project delivering exemplary results for which he or she gets reworded. However, if the next special interest based result does not secure another reward, intrinsic motivation can diminish or even completely disappear.

Understanding and implementing basic principles of intrinsic motivation can help us escape life or career of drudgery and misery, as we seek out ways of earning money that we, at the same time, enjoy doing. We do not have to take that sales job that we dislike, in order just to put bread on our table.

On our path of life-long-learning, we have to realize that things are not always the way they seem to be. Given axioms, however powerful or “logical” might seem to be, are not always the only truth. We have to learn to quiz everything in order to get to some higher level of understanding and knowledge. So, let’s look at the modern bio-behavioral psychology which rejects the division of motivation into intrinsic or extrinsic.

According to bio-behavioral psychologists, motivation and all learning is a result of a single process that uses the nearly identical area in the brain. This means that intrinsic and extrinsic motivational processes are “metaphorical constructs” and not the ones actually taking place in our brains. They assume that reward occurs when “an individual shifts attention from one environment-behavior perceptual relationship to another”. Key proof for them is the appearance of the neuro-modulator dopamine which impacts attention, makes thinking more efficient, and adds importance to purely hedonic value, i.e. to the degree of happiness or sadness felt. A bio-behavioral theory postulates that we will find most rewarding those situations where the “problems” can be solved quickly and effectively given proper attention. For most of us, situations that have few problems rapidly become boring, but the ones with too many unsolvable problems become depressing. Situations that have frequent and many solvable problems are the events that we find the most rewarding, most motivating, and that we thrive on.

Whatever theory you subscribe to, if you do what you love and what you believe in, the money may or may not follow, but you’ll be happy and satisfied with what you do. It might be just wishful thinking to believe that following your heart will bring you material riches, but if those riches don’t follow, and you consider them to be important, there’s always time for plan B.

Success usually comes from some kind of balance between extrinsic and intrinsic incentives, but we should always remember that intrinsic incentives and intrinsic motivation make a more powerful tool for influencing human behavior!


You can motivate by fear. And you can motivate by reward.
But both of these methods are only temporary. The only lasting thing is self-motivation. ⁓ Homer Rice


Dobrica Savić

DISCLAIMER: Any views or opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.