Motivating Employee Retention: Intrinsic Motivation


Intrinsic Motivation

Posted on June 2, 2018 by Jonathan Mills

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

The “personal why”, more potent and dynamic than an “external why”.

That self-drive, the one that seeks out new challenges, is intrinsic motivation. It is the impetus to evaluate self, to master challenges, to find purpose, and to enjoy the journey. Achievements driven by intrinsic motivation are more creative, dynamic, and successful than those driven by external rewards. Organizations smart enough to grab hold of it are more likely to attract top talent and keep employee retention high.

Creating a place where inspired and talented employees want to stay requires that you foster intrinsic motivation. But how? It comes from a genuine shift in your corporate culture, best pursued as part of a larger change effort. However, there are three simple tenants to help you get started and hopefully experience some quick wins at the onset: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.


Contrary to common practice and belief, employees are at their best when they don’t need to be managed. Our basic nature is to be curious, self-directed, and inspired; so, micro-management causes passivity, which is often falsely interpreted as a need for more management.

Autonomy frees your employees to realize their true potential, so make sure that management doesn’t get in the way. Resist the temptation to control, instead adopting a culture of trust and self-direction. Be patient if employees do not immediately adopt this change—it is a challenge to transition from micro-management to self-direction.

The ultimate freedom for creative groups is the freedom to experiment with new ideas. Some skeptics insist that innovation is expensive. In the long run, innovation is cheap. Mediocrity is expensive—and autonomy can be the antidote.
-Tom Kelley, General Manager, IDEO


The pursuit of mastery is a slow climb. The more of an expert you become the harder it is to improve, but that struggle is worth while. It creates focus and continual feedback. Employees need to experience this balance between challenge and success (often called “flow”) that produces daily enjoyment and reinvigorates progress. Otherwise, work becomes tedious and repetitive.

Adopt a culture of mastery by removing barriers to learning, by allowing for risks to be taken, and by listening to your employees. Regard them as experts, looking for and taking their counsel.

You need not see what someone is doing
to know if it is his vocation,

you have only to watch his eyes:
a cook mixing a sauce, a surgeon

making a primary incision,
a clerk completing a bill of lading,

wear the same rapt expression, forgetting
themselves in a function.

How beautiful it is,
that eye-on-the-object look.
-W. H. Auden


You reach the age of 60 and look back to ask, “What have I accomplished that was purposeful?” This undergirding question of, “Why?” often goes unanswered, yet purpose makes autonomy and mastery possible. Employees need larger-than-life context for their day-to-day work because it gives them the wherewithal to be autonomously self-managed and to pursue mastery. The alternative is a purposeless effort that inevitably leads to attrition.
If your organization does not already have a grand purpose, then it needs one: create a culture where your employees have line-of-sight with a meaningful outcome; adopt a social cause and make it a part of work-life; or better, align your corporate mission with social responsibility. Ensure that even simple daily tasks are tied to a purpose centered on the betterment of people.


These three tenants are foundational for creating a culture where intrinsic motivation is the norm. This leaves employees happier, more fulfilled, and with a sense of proud. They will stay longer; but when they do leave, they will be part of a legacy that attracts more talent, further maximizing employee retention.
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