How To Harness the Power of Intrinsic Motivation to Become a Better Leader

Sean K. Murphy September 11, 2017

Effective conscious leaders are more than simply mindful. They also know how to connect with others on a motivational level, to both develop their employees and encourage optimal performance. Harnessing the power of motivation to become a better leader requires paying attention to three elements: understanding peoples’ drives, communicating in alignment with them, and paying attention to the motivational balance on your team.

Three Keys to Motivational Leadership

1. Identify employee motivations.

Organizations use a lot of tools, like personality assessments, to find out what makes their employees tick. For example, there are a number of personality tests out there — but almost all of them identify characteristics and traits, NOT motivations. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Strengthsfinder, and the DISC assessment are well-known varieties of such. But because they operate on the characteristics and traits level, this type of assessment only tells you about “what” people tend to do.

To really motivate their teams, leaders must cultivate a deeper level of understanding of “why” people do what they do. It helps to understand that there are two basic types of motivations:

Intrinsic motivations

These relate to our deeply held values and beliefs. Research shows that fulfilling intrinsic motivations leads to greater creativity, productivity, and commitment. It’s doing what’s most satisfying to the individual.

Extrinsic motivations

These include tangible rewards and punishment, such as pay or threatened job security. Research shows that appealing to extrinsic motivations is actually de-motivating because doing so undermines a person’s sense of autonomy. Acting on these motivations involve doing what satisfies someone else, and not oneself.

To identify internal motivations, some organizations rely on a self-rater system, where employees rank a list of 16–24 human motivations (things like freedom, accomplishment, and security) into categories of least to most important. The limitation here is that people aren’t aware of their unconscious needs and desires.

Another method is to conduct motivational interviews of a sample of individual employees in order to map the group’s collective motivational profile. These interviews tend to be qualitative and they require one to two hours of each employee’s time.

I created the Inside8 test as a quantitative tool, where people respond to an online questionnaire that helps identify each person’s top four to five motivations, including unconscious drivers. As with the motivational interview technique, the group’s motivational profile is derived from the aggregate of the individual profiles.

Of course, the true motivational leader will first seek to understand his or her individual drivers and how they relate to team’s collective motivational profile. Knowing their own tendencies will help the leader see how to personally relate to others in the organization, where they’re compatible and how they conflict, and the root of the behaviors that could derail or propel their plans for taking the organization forward.

 2. Communicate in a way that resonates with employees’ internal motivations.

Some people believe that employees are motivated by a leader’s passion or vision. I consider this idea representative of the narcissistic or command-and-control type leadership model. Its effectiveness relies on people ceding their competence to the leader.

Motivational leadership is less about the leader’s personal charisma and more about explaining the company’s vision in ways that employees find compelling because the message aligns with employees’ personal values. In order for employees to authentically engage, a company’s vision and mission must reflect the motivational desires of the team charged with making it happen. Otherwise, people are just showing up for work.

This approach means framing the leader’s message in emotionally resonant terms that move people to action. As described by Warner Burke in “Organizational Change and Practice” (2011): “The leader has a sense of what followers need and want; it is simply that these desires are not in conscious awareness. It is about beliefs and values that people hold but do not necessarily discuss.”

Dr. Burke is describing how some leaders have an innate sense for and can speak to a team’s motivational needs. However, that opportunity is open to every leader who is willing to invest the resources in a motivational study.

For example, members of a company’s customer service team have this collective motivational profile:

  • Achieving happiness through health and life balance.
  • A deep need for personal security and a sense of belonging that comes with getting along with others and having friendships.

The core motivational messages to motivate this team could include:

  • “As a team, we succeed because we are dedicated to becoming our best as people and professionals, so we can accomplish more, make each other better, and deliver for our clients.”

For this message to be authentic, the organization must offer tangible programs to help employees develop their skills and grow in their careers. Active peer support networks also are critical.

  • “We succeed because our culture recognizes the need to nurture the whole person — work hard, but take the time to enjoy life and do the things that make us happy and help us grow.”

For this message to ring true, the organization must actively sponsor work-life balance initiatives beyond the ordinary standards. If they do, the reward is a highly effective team because the company is meeting team members’ deepest needs.

3. Formulate the optimal motivational mix across the company.

I’ve completed various employee culture studies that demonstrate the importance of motivational diversity in composing company teams. Our motivational study of an emerging technology company showed that the CEO had created an effective customer service culture — the company’s main selling proposition. However, growth was stagnant. We discovered this was due in part to the team’s lack of motivational diversity.

Growth companies are fueled by a combination of creativity, strategic planning, and task-orientation — motivations completely missing from the tech company’s employee mix (including the CEO’s). To fill this critical void, the CEO’s new priority became screening for complementary but additive motivational types in the company’s recruitment. Specifically, he targeted recruits who were caring (to complement the caring customer-service people already there), resourceful, and forward thinking (to add the drive for innovation and growth).

The people there were dedicated to the customer-service job they were hired to do. The new insight showed the leader exactly how to add people with the right motivational wiring to grow the company without disrupting its base of success.

Put it together

Motivational leaders care about the “why.” They see the strategic value of quantifying motivations. They better understand themselves, how to articulate the company’s vision, how each employee’s motivations are aligned with their job responsibilities, and how to tune the company’s motivational mix to achieve organizational objectives. With those three factors in place, the motivational leader has all the tools to tap into the team’s true passion and move people to action.

Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
Join the SOCAP Newsletter!