Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

How knowing your motivation style can help you work smarter.


Sarah McMahon

2 years ago | 5 min read

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

I once had a running coach whose primary method of motivation was to either shame or denigrate. He almost never gave anyone positive affirmation, and that method probably worked for some of his athletes. But for as many people who need someone to constantly push them, there are just as many people who push themselves hard enough. When my coach said things like “you can do better,” he was only echoing what I already thought. His words didn’t motivate me further, rather, they had the perverse effect of de-motivating me.

It took me some time to realize that nobody holds me to a higher standard than I hold myself. I almost always think I could do more. My old coach applied the same method to all of his athletes, and in doing so, pushed some of his athletes to be as fast as they’d ever been. He pushed me to a point of over-training, which comes with a decrease in performance. A more aware coach would have realized the differences in his athletes. Instead of treating us all the same, he would have adjusted his coaching style. Coaching is a profession that requires a fair amount of emotional intelligence. Just as there are bad cops, bad doctors, and bad lawyers, there are bad coaches (and plenty of good ones). Although this is obvious, it is a reality that feels foreign in today’s chaotic and extremist landscape.

When I think back on my early days running and being coached by various people, I can easily pinpoint which coaches were able to identify what motivated myself and my teammates. The ability to tap into someone else’s psyche and determine what will motivate them is a gift. The best sales people have it. The best leaders have it. Emotional intelligence is actually one of the leading factors of success in the workplace. Being able to identify what motivates yourself, and your team, is enormously important as well.

Maybe you’re like me, and you have a high degree of intrinsic motivation. You participate in activities because you find them enjoyable. You study a particular subject because you find it fascinating. You might compete in a contest because you find the challenge fun or exciting. Or maybe, you have a high degree of extrinsic motivation, so you participate in activities to win. You study to get good grades, or choose subjects most closely aligned with future economic success. You only join contests or challenges to reap some sort of reward or recognition. Neither motivation style is better or worse, and many of us have a good amount of both.

I used to work in fundraising and have since switched to sales. Fundraising appealed to my intrinsic motivation style. I liked feeling as if the work I was doing was helping someone. I enjoyed my work as well, which made the difficulty of the job and the mediocre pay a non-issue. Non-profits sometimes like to lean on the philanthropic sensibilities of their employees to justify low pay. The public seems to think that people who work for non-profits shouldbe paid less than their for-profit peers, but I digress. The job is rewarding, but in exchange, you’re almost expected to not earn that much. Soon, the reality of life at a nonprofit set in. It was difficult making ends meet, and I soon learned that my compensation would be capped at a certain level. Even high-level jobs in the nonprofit world didn’t pay that well, and soon my intrinsic motivation to do good in the world was overshadowed by my immediate needs.

My decision to move into a sales job was motivated more by my extrinsic need to earn a reasonable living than by any intrinsic desire to sell anything. It was important for me to find a job selling something I cared about. I knew that most sales jobs would be a grind, and just like fundraising, sales would be more enjoyable if I liked and believed in what I was selling. Luckily, I landed in a job I like, at a company I like. My intrinsic and extrinsic motivation meshes in a way that’s difficult to orchestrate or plan. I didn’t know I would like my sales job. But, when I wake up every day and start working, I don’t dread my tasks. I look forward to drumming up business and talking to interesting people. Commission is a nice bonus, and a pretty good incentive to keep drumming up new business.

The interesting thing about motivation is that when you offer excessive extrinsic rewards to an intrinsically motivated person, you can effectively de-motivated them. This is a phenomenon known as the over-justification effect. A 2008 study found that children who were rewarded for playing with a toy they had already expressed interest in playing with became less interested in the item after being externally rewarded. If this effect is applied to the world of sales or fundraising, it’s easy to understand that some intrinsically motivated sales people won’t be more motivated by rewards or recognition if they already like what they sell. If they don’t like what they’re selling, they will require more extrinsic motivators in order to become interested. If I sold insurance, for example, I would need a pretty strong extrinsic motivator in order to stay engaged, and even then, I would probably still hate it. Since sales jobs attract more extrinsically motivated people, it makes sense that companies offer rewards in turn for selling.

In many ways, external rewards are useful. They can:

  • Provide feedback regarding performance and reinforce positive action.
  • Induce interest and participation in an activity an individual was not initially interested in (common in the sales world, like in my insurance example.
  • Motivate people to acquire new skills or knowledge and thereby lead them to be more intrinsically interested in an activity.

Extrinsic motivators should be avoided in situations where:

  • An individual already finds the activity intrinsically rewarding
  • Offering a reward might make a fun activity seem more like “work”

I’m going to leave you with three interesting takeaways about extrinsic rewards and their influence on intrinsic motivation:

  1. Intrinsic motivation will decrease when external rewards are given for minimal work. If children receive a prize just for participating in a game or contest, their motivation to try to win will decrease and they’ll often become less interested in the activity overall.
  2. Praise can increase internal motivation. This seems obvious, but offering positive praise and feedback when people do something better than others can improve intrinsic motivation.
  3. Unexpected external rewards do not decrease intrinsic motivation. An unexpected bonus or shoutout at work will not decrease your intrinsic motivation to do your job, if you already like it. Conversely, if you hate your job and receive random praise, or even a random bonus, you’ll probably still hate it. The key element is that the external rewards must be unexpected or random. If given too often, they may result in a decrease in motivation for an intrinsically motivated person.

P.S. Read about how to motivate your employees here, read about how to coach young athletes given their unique motivation styles here, or find your own motivation style here.


Sarah Rose


Created by

Sarah McMahon

Sales Professional | Poet | Freelancer |Blogger IG: @mcmountain email:







Related Articles