Motivating Employee Retention: Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic Motivation

Updated on March 24, 2020 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 and inspirations, is intrinsic motivation. It is the drive 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 vision and culture, best pursued as part of a larger strategy. However, there are three simple tenants to help you get started and hopefully experience some quick wins at the onset: autonomy, mastery, and purpose (inspired by the work of Daniel Pink). 


Employees are at their best when they don’t need to be managed. Our basic nature is to be curious, self-directed, and inspired; but micro-management counter-acts that nature and causes a low-energy, passive attitude. Passivity is often interpreted as laziness, justifying continued micro-management, causing systemic passivity.

When Autonomy is fostered, it frees employees to discover 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

Ideas to play with: 1) schedule fewer meetings or make them more focused; 2) simplify performance reviews; 3) align a few performance metrics with org values and strategy, then shelf the rest; 4) share decision making power; and 5) identify essential management tasks, then rotate responsibility over time.


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 worthwhile. It engenders focus, self-reflection, and flow (the experience of balancing challenge and success). Employees need to experience flow, in particular, because it 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

Ideas to play with: 1) find a way to celebrate risk-taking (even failures); 2) create time for study and practice during core hours; 3) champion skill-based mentorships; 4) adopt “ability/hunger to learn” as a celebrated competency; and 5) research and provide resources that align with your org values and strategy.


You reach the age of 60 and look back to ask, “What have I accomplished that was purposeful?” This under-girding 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 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.

Ideas to play with: 1) study how how your org design aligns with your values and purpose; 2) collaborate with employees to describe how their work impacts the community; 3) adopt corporate social responsibility as an org value; 4) conduct a “get to know you” assessment and use what you learn to better support employee needs; and 5) use what you learn to adopt a charity/cause that aligns with employee values.

These three tenants are the foundation for creating a culture where intrinsic motivation is the norm. They leave employees happier, more fulfilled, and with a sense of pride. They will stay longer; but when they do leave, they will be part of a legacy that attracts more talent, further maximizing employee retention. If you would like to know more, you can contact us here.

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