To some leaders, motivation seems like a simple concept: when your team is motivated, you’ve done a good job. But, when it comes to prioritizing your team’s long-term success and overall well-being, psychology can help you motivate them the right way.

What are the different types of motivation?

There are two types of motivationintrinsic and extrinsic (also called autonomous and controlled, respectively) — which generate different feelings toward goals.

Intrinsic motivation refers to being energized by deeply held values and interests or the enjoyment and satisfaction of an activity itself. For example, you might be intrinsically motivated to plan a surprise party for your friend because you enjoy planning parties and making your friend happy.

Extrinsic motivation refers to being compelled to do an activity because of the reward or punishment (whether real or internalized) associated with it. For example, you might feel motivated to do a good job on a work assignment because you want a promotion or fear getting fired.

A 2014 meta-analysis on the effects of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation on performance found that intrinsic motivation was nearly six times more powerful than extrinsic motivation in predicting performance. In other words, when we’re intrinsically motivated at work, our performance improves.

So how can leaders use intrinsic motivation to improve employee performance and well-being? The answer lies in psychology. Specifically, a concept referred to as self-determination theory.

What is self-determination theory?

Self-determination theory (SDT) outlines the psychological needs regarding motivation. Under this theory, there are three needs that, when met, lead to growth and development, both of which generate intrinsic motivation. These needs are autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

  1. Autonomy refers to feeling like we have a choice and are willingly endorsing our own behavior, as opposed to feeling compelled or controlled by an external source (i.e. reward or punishment).
  2. Competence refers to experiencing mastery and being effective in an activity.
  3. Relatedness refers to feeling connection and a sense of belongingness with others.

How can leaders satisfy their team’s psychological needs using SDT?

The following motivational tips are based on prominent psychological research cited by expert leadership strategists at Forbes.

To promote autonomy…

  • Demonstrate an interest in your team members’ wishes, preferences, and perspectives.
  • Allow space for flexibility and choice in how your team completes their work.
  • Show trust in your team and refrain from micromanaging.

To promote competence…

  • Establish goals with your team that are challenging but achievable.
  • Establish alignment between employee strengths and the tasks they are asked to complete.
  • Provide encouraging and relevant feedback.

To promote relatedness…

  • Create opportunities for team members to share their challenges and victories with one another.
  • Remind team members that they are valued and appreciated, not just as workers but as individuals.
  • Encourage frequent and open communication to build meaningful relationships among the team.

See the results

If your team seems disengaged, ask yourself, “Am I doing what I can to make sure my team’s psychological needs are being met?” Thanks to continued research in workplace psychology, these evidence-based tactics can get your team excited about their work, benefits that may well extend throughout your entire organization.

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