For business leaders and managers wanting to find better ways to motivate employees, having an understanding of internal, or intrinsic, motivation versus external, or extrinsic, motivation is a big help. Internal motivation comes from within - the employee’s own personal goals, values and beliefs. External motivation comes from outside, and includes such rewards as a paycheck, a bonus, an award or praise offered by another person in return for doing the job.

Many motivational experts consider internal motivation to be the most effective type. However, researchers looking further into studies of motivation and behavior find that a combination of internal and external motivating factors is even more effective. Internal motivations are highly personal, so it pays to know your employees well so that your offerings of internal motivation will be meaningful to them.

Dimensions of Internal Motivation

Individuals may define and express their internal needs differently, but psychologists have found a cluster of core motivating principles. These include relatedness, autonomy, competence and purpose. Purpose, or meaning, is activated when employees feel that their work makes them part of a greater whole and contributes to the benefit of others. Competence is the ability to learn and master new skills. Relatedness is the feeling of being connected to and recognized by other human beings. Autonomy is the ability to control one’s life, which in business could mean having the authority to make and carry out basic decisions about how to conduct one’s work.

Lessons From a Personal Trainer

Excellent personal trainers are masters at motivating their clients. It’s an essential part of the trainer’s job. After all, who wants to spend time working out on the elliptical when it’s easier and more comfortable to sit back and watch cat videos on the internet? A good personal trainer might begin the day’s session by asking his client how her family spent the weekend, or if she has read any interesting books related to her current work project. Showing interest in the client as a person satisfies her internal need for relatedness. When the trainer reviews her progress since their previous session, he points out what she’s doing right and notes how much further she’s advanced. This highlights her developing competency, satisfying another internal need.

When he introduces a new exercise or a piece of equipment to her regime, the trainer shows how it will help her achieve her fitness as well as her personal goals, such as staying healthy so she can more effectively care for her family. This provides a purpose for her to try it. When she tackles the new equipment, he watches carefully without hovering, providing only as much correction as she needs to work properly and avoid injuries. Once he’s sure she has a good handle on the new exercise, he backs off and watches from a distance, granting her the autonomy to make progress under her own power.

The Right Motivation for the Task

Internal motivation is a powerful factor for increasing employee performance, but only when applied in the right way to the right type of work. As reported in Science for Work, a research team reviewed 40 years of motivational studies, and found that the best results arose from a nuanced application of internal and external motivators. Internal motivators were more effective for improving performance on qualitative, complex and creative tasks. This could apply to work involved with innovation and design, management and leadership, or sales and promotional work. External motivators like salary and bonuses were more powerfully connected with success at straightforward, repetitive tasks such as assembly line work, especially when the reward is directly related to performance at the task.