Three types of intrinsic motivation and how to use them in learning

February 9, 2022

When most people think about motivation, they think of the carrot and the stick. Although this is a gross oversimplification of how extrinsic motivation really works, it forms the foundation of many organisations’ people management. Often, employees are promised a reward (promotion, bonus, praise) for good performance and face negative consequences (performance review, losing their job, even blame) for poor performance.

But you’ll notice that even with carrot and stick extrinsic motivators in place, there’s still a wide variation in performance. 

Do you think your top performers just love bonuses more than everyone else, or would they still be a high performer if the bonus didn’t exist? And what about those poor performers? Unless they hate the idea of a promotion and a better salary, there’s something more going on. 

Where carrot and stick fails

Carrot and stick motivation can be successful for what Dan Pink calls algorithmic tasks; repetitive tasks that require simple, logical, step-by-step thinking. Tasks that we don’t see much of in today’s modern businesses. 

If you’re trying to motivate a group of employees to complete more conceptual tasks that require creativity and problem solving, carrot and stick motivation can actually have a negative effect. Why? Because it’s someone else’s carrot and stick. 

The intrinsic pleasure of self improvement or problem solving is replaced by an extrinsic reward - a manager’s praise perhaps - which is less motivating.

Three types of intrinsic motivation

If carrot and stick doesn’t work, what does? As we’ve alluded to already, understanding individual motivation is complex, but not so complex that we can’t identify some key themes.

You can start by tapping into employees’ intrinsic motivations: Autonomy, mastery and purpose.

  • Autonomy - We are much more likely to engage with activities we have chosen to do. 
  • Mastery - We are intrinsically motivated to get better and better at things that matter to us. 
  • Purpose - We are motivated when our actions are in service of something larger than ourselves. 

So, when designing a learning experience, consider:

  1. How can you give learners as much choice as possible within the experience?
  2. How can you ensure the learning experience helps learners improve their skills? 
  3. How can you communicate the wider purpose of the learning?

Using behavioural insights about motivation when designing learning will help you gain and hold interest - and encourage learners to take action. 

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