intrinsic motivation Thomas de Graaf

Intrinsically motivating environments

Some time ago I said to someone that I want to create an environment in which people become intrinsically motivated. He replied to me “But intrinsically motivated people are already motivated themselves!”.

In the world of IT, with more ideas than successful implementations, we continue to seek for new buzzwords to help us out. Everything-as-a-service, full-stack t-shaped unicorns, high performing teams and intrinsically motivated people, who would dare to say ‘no’ to these? Although there is a truth in these buzzwords, misunderstanding them can have devastating results. Those buzzwords might distract us from what really makes the biggest impact on the productivity of teams, defining the environment in which people work.

We like to put people into ‘boxes’ to understand them better and within IT that would preferably be binary. Within complex environments such as human behaviour, that is however not applicable. Let me prove this to you. For those who see themselves as intrinsically motivated, who needs his salary to pay the monthly bills or maintain his/hers standard of living? Who is saving up for a nice new car, bathroom, kitchen or house? Or are you looking forward to buy that new gadget or piece of clothing from the next salary? For those who see themselves as extrinsically motivated, did you ever leave the office with the feeling that you accomplished something great that day even though your payment didn’t change because of it? Did you ever feel challenged on your work, because someone gave you a challenge and you resolved it? Did you ever feel appreciated at work because someone said thank you when you helped them out?

Hopefully I just proved there is a lot of grey area here and people are generally both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated. But that is not where it stops, it gets even better! Motivation is not static, we can influence it! Imagine you are a predominantly intrinsically motivated cartoon artist. You make awesome cartoons, appreciated by millions of viewers worldwide. One day a new chief editor is assigned who reviews your creations and every single time he says they are not good enough. Without elaborating why, he puts all of your work in the paper shredder right in front of you. Would you remain intrinsically motivated? What if he also decides to cut your salary or stop paying at all? And what if this cartoon artist would be a software developer instead, would this still apply?

Now the other way around, can we make a predominantly extrinsically motivated individual more intrinsically motivated? As a manager, try telling your team that you didn’t just hire them for their capabilities, but also want them to develop themselves in areas they are interested in, so they remain motivated and committed for a longer period of time. Give them the opportunity to explore new challenges, accept failure and let them learn by trying. Ask them if they are happy with their work and seek new opportunities together if the current work is not giving any satisfaction. In fact, anyone can help creating an intrinsically motivating environment. Try giving a colleague a compliment, let someone pick up a story for whom it is a challenge rather than a walk in the park. Give your colleague a compliment or thank them if they did something for you, it’s also the little things. Don’t forget to have some fun too, it might make you more intrinsically motivated as well.

Therefore, let’s stop talking about intrinsic motivated people and start talking about intrinsically motivating environments. Examples anyone?

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