The Science of Motivation

You may have listened to a rousing speech or read an inspiring story. You felt greatly inspired by the talk or the story and were charged with motivation, confidence and strength—you were ready to change the world. Or perhaps you’ve given an inspirational talk to your employees. You tried to fuel them up with marvelous visions of the organization and described the great awards awaiting them when the vision is achieved. You could see the sparkles in your audiences’ eyes and people nodding with excitement.

But as time passes, you probably find yourself going back to your old ways, and your employees’ performance remains the same. The truth is motivations from outside don’t last long,1 —especially after those empty talks. True and enduring motivation only comes from within.

Psychologists have been trying for decades to understand what motivates people. They have discovered the key elements of motivation are human needs. Many theories of motivation more or less identify different types of human needs. People’s motivations will be enhanced once the needs are satisfied.

There are two general types of motivation: extrinsic motivation and intrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation occurs when people’s needs for valued outcomes or avoidance of punishment are satisfied.2 People who are motivated by extrinsic factors don’t pursue the goal because they enjoy the activity but because of the rewards (or no punishment) when the goal is achieved. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, focuses the motivation from within. People who are intrinsically motivated perform tasks because they enjoy the activities and find the tasks inherently satisfying.2 Therefore, once the extrinsic motivators (rewards or threats) are gone, it is hard for people to continue the activities they don’t enjoy. It is people’s interests and love that motivates them to pursue a goal.

After looking through results from more than 100 studies examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation, researchers found that most extrinsic rewards undermine one’s intrinsic motivation — again, meaning their interests in the tasks. These extrinsic rewards include prizes for participation or completion of tasks, as well as rewards based on how well one performs. Rewards that are not based on either tasks or performance were found to have no impact on motivation (e.g., salary). However, external elements, such as positive feedback, were found to positively contribute to intrinsic motivation.3

People who are intrinsically motivated are more creative, exhibit more perseverance over difficult tasks, perform better, are more engaged than less motivated workers, are more satisfied with work and are more committed to the organizations.

Scientists identified multiple components of intrinsic motivation in the workplace:4,5

  • Competence: an individual’s belief in his or her ability to perform activities with skill
  • Meaning: whether there is a fit between one’s work goal or purpose and one’s ideals or standards
  • Autonomy: an individual’s sense of having control over his or her own choices or behaviors
  • Impact: the degree to which one can influence the strategy, administration or outcomes at work.

These shed light on both the means of self-motivation and motivating others. The first step to instill self-motivation is to believe that you have the skills and abilities to complete your goal. This kind of self-belief can be improved from practice, seeking feedback for others, setting difficult but attainable goals, learning from good performances or working toward eliminating barriers.

Next, you need to gain control over your behaviors, actions and goal-related activities. Learn self-regulation and avoid distraction. Manage your own schedules and don’t let your timetable manage you. Most importantly, find tasks that interest you most or rethink how the current work can contribute to your dream, your long-term goal and the greater good.

In order to better motivate your employees, try to combine a charismatic leadership style with consideration, encouragement, more delegation, empowerment and trust. You can also try to make the tasks more interesting by assigning different projects to people to add variety. You should continually give feedback throughout processes of task completion and let the employees stay on a task from beginning to end with outcomes they can see and understand. Moreover, let them know that their work has meaning and can have substantial impact on the lives and work of other people—their efforts, small or big, are important.


  1. Taylor, J. (September, 2011). Personal growth: Why inspirational talks don’t work. Psychology Today. Retrieved from:
  2. Deci, E.L., & Ryan, R.M. (1987). The support of autonomy and the control of behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1024-103.
  3. Deci, E.L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R.M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668.
  4. Spreitzer, G. M. (1995). Psychological empowerment in the workplace: Dimensions, measurement, and validation. Academy of management Journal38(5), 1442-1465.
  5. Deci, E. L., Connell, J. P., & Ryan, R. M. (1989). Self-determination in a work organization. Journal of applied psychology74, 580-590.


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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.