What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn how intrinsic motivation can improve employee well-being while also driving organizational success.

[Featured Image] A store employee enjoys working with a customer due to intrinsic motivation.

Have you ever wondered what motivates people to find new challenges or learn new things even when the situation has no immediate or direct rewards? Volunteering at a local shelter, pursuing a challenging hobby, mastering a musical instrument, and committing to regular meditation routines are all examples of intrinsic motivation. These examples emphasize actions driven by innate passion rather than the need for recognition or external rewards.

But how exactly does intrinsic motivation play out in work scenarios? Explore how intrinsic motivation intertwines with work culture and organizational goals.

What role does intrinsic motivation play in the workplace?

Employees driven by intrinsic motivation often see a larger purpose or meaning in their work, which can improve performance and encourage growth. Such employees proactively seek learning opportunities, ensuring they remain at the forefront of their roles. Intrinsically motivated employees feel a profound connection to their roles and workplace, taking pride in what they bring to the table.

Did you know? In a 2023 Statista survey spanning 22 countries, impactful work emerged as the top organizational priority for 45 percent of global workers. Career advancement opportunities and pay followed closely at 43 percent and 38 percent, respectively [1].


3 pillars of intrinsic motivation

At its core, intrinsic motivation hinges on autonomy, mastery, and purpose. In his book Drive, a New York Times bestseller, author Daniel Pink taps into 50 years of behavioral research to unravel the mysteries of intrinsic motivation [2]:

  • Autonomy: Represents the desire to control one's actions and decisions. With the rise of hybrid work models, where employees split their time between working remotely and in physical office spaces, autonomy hints at an individual’s freedom to decide when to work and where to work from.

  • Mastery: Involves the pursuit of excellence, skill development, or continuous learning in a particular domain or activity.  For example, an employee who actively enrolls in workshops to elevate technical expertise is motivated by mastery.

  • Purpose: It's based upon making a meaningful impact or serving a more significant cause. For instance, an employee at an accounting firm might sort recyclables, driven by the purpose of advancing environmental sustainability.

Understanding the aforementioned intrinsic motivators can help elevate your employee engagement strategies if you occupy a leadership role in business or management.

What is an intrinsic reward?

An intrinsic reward is the internal boost an employee experiences after completing an assigned task. Rooted in personal effort and skills, these rewards are psychological. They spark positive feelings and encourage continued skill development.

Obtaining the autonomy to choose tasks is an example of an intrinsic reward. Let’s suppose Maria is a chef in a restaurant you own. As a restaurant manager, you recognize the expertise of your skilled chef, Maria. You trust her to choose the cooking sequence for the daily menu as long as each dish meets the highest standards. The flexibility of choosing, an intrinsic motivator, enables Maria to demonstrate the best of her culinary skills.

Other examples of intrinsic reward at work include:

  • Securing added work responsibilities

  • Gaining new learning experiences 

  • Deepening proficiency within a specialized realm

  • Earning increased confidence or trust from supervisors

Rewards and motivation, although commonly associated, differ fundamentally. Motivation represents the drive or inspiration felt before and during the execution of a task. The outcomes of the task constitute rewards. For example, the aspiration to lead a project can push an employee forward (motivation), but the successful leadership element is the definitive reward.

Intrinsic motivation vs. extrinsic motivation: How do they differ?

Extrinsic motivation occurs when someone undertakes a task to secure a reward or avoid a penalty.  Examples of extrinsic rewards include performance-based bonuses, promotions, and commissions, among other incentives.

While extrinsic motivation can provide a helpful nudge in specific instances, such as pursuing a reward for a less appealing task, it's essential to note its limitations. Over time, an overemphasis on extrinsic rewards may result in decreased motivation or burnout. In contrast, intrinsic motivation, driven by personal satisfaction and passion, often offers a more sustainable and fulfilling approach to goal achievement.

Benefits of incorporating intrinsic motivation

Fostering intrinsic motivation within your workforce can yield the following perks for your business:

1. Reduced turnover rate

Intrinsically motivated employees derive satisfaction from several aspects of their work, such as a sense of purpose or the fulfillment of making a meaningful impact. This satisfaction creates a positive association with their roles, making them more content and less likely to seek new job opportunities.

2. Increased productivity

Intrinsic motivation reduces dependency on external recognition or incentives, enhancing productivity. For instance, let’s consider two sales professionals. One is solely driven by commission earned per sale. The other, deeply passionate about the product, enthusiastically persuades customers. The former increases effort for higher payouts. The latter puts in effort regardless of rewards, motivated by the intrinsic joy of solving customer problems.

3. Continuous learning

Intrinsically motivated professionals are inherently interested in exploring new ideas, concepts, and methodologies related to their field. This intellectual curiosity drives them to seek out learning opportunities, whether through formal education, workshops, or self-directed research.

How to increase intrinsic motivation at work

Here's a set of approaches you can follow to strengthen the intrinsic motivation of your employees:

1. Set clear goals

Clearly defined short-term and long-term goals inspire a sense of purpose and direction. As your employees progress toward set goals, they experience a tangible sense of accomplishment, reinforcing their motivation and encouraging them to pursue further challenges and opportunities for growth.

2. Prioritize employee well-being

Inspiration quickly wears off amidst stress or discomfort. To boost your team's spirit, maintain a conducive on-site work atmosphere and flexible work schedules if your staff is remote.

3. Offer constructive feedback 

Creating a culture of open communication and feedback fosters a supportive learning environment where your employees feel comfortable seeking guidance, asking questions, and sharing their ideas. This sense of belonging and inclusivity fuels intrinsic motivation and a mutual quest for excellence.

Learn more with Coursera.

Enhance your understanding of employee engagement with Inspiring and Motivating Individuals, a course offered by the University of Michigan on Coursera. Throughout your learning journey, you can deepen your knowledge of the needs and drivers of employee performance. You will need approximately 14 hours to complete this course.

Article sources


Statista. “Most important attributes for employees when choosing a job worldwide as of 2023, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1246966/job-satisfaction-factors-worldwide/.” Accessed on March 7, 2024.

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