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Let's get your team on their way to wellbeing.

  • Writer's pictureLindsay Johnson

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivators: How to Engage Your Employees

motivation is the puzzle piece to employee engagement
Motivation is the puzzle piece to improve employee engagement

Motivating employees is the talk of the town when there are complaints of burnout and absenteeism. What if employers didn’t wait until it got that bad? Instead, find out what makes your employees tick now.

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivators serve a purpose. Let’s dive into how to keep employees happy and engaged at work with both! 

At FitPros, we host live sessions daily, from Meditation to Yoga and Health Talks to Team Building. Some people are naturally excited to participate in corporate organized events because they gain personal satisfaction from attending. This is what we call intrinsic motivation. On the other hand, some people need a gentle nudge to get started and to keep on track. This is called extrinsic motivation. 

An extrinsically motivated person would benefit from challenges aka competitions — for example, a reward at the end for the employee(s) who attends every session within a given timeframe or recognition to the employee(s) who did the best.

By introducing challenges, you can motivate all employees — whether they are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated — to get active and engaged in your wellbeing program. And as you know, the better your staff takes care of themselves, the better work they can do for your company.

Self-Determination Theory to Engage Employees

The philosopher and writer, Lao Tzu once said, “The man who loves walking will walk further than the man who loves the destination.” 

It might be cliche and an old quote, but it helps explain why we do things. To better understand this, you need to understand the Self-Determination Theory (SDT).

The SDT says we engage in any type of behavior because of three basic needs:

  1. Autonomy: We want to make our own decisions (and not be forced to do something)

  2. Competence: We want to be good at a task (and want to avoid things we don’t understand or are not good at)

  3. Connection: We want to feel useful and connected to others

When picturing the self-determination theory, it can help to visualize a chart that goes from left to right. On the far left of the chart is a motivation — this is a lack of drive to engage in an activity. In the middle, there is extrinsic motivation — external rewards provide motivation. Finally, there’s a connection — a sense of belonging and attachment.

As the quote goes, the man who loves to walk is intrinsically motivated. He wants to walk, is good at it, and feels a sense of belonging and accomplishment.

When creating challenges for your workplace, take into account the self-determination theory. For example, if you were to implement a movement challenge, there would naturally be people who enjoy exercise and others who don’t. External motivators such as a leaderboard, a cash prize, or some other reward can help get some motivated to participate. Together, they’ll feel connected — a sense of belonging because they are doing the task as a team. Some of those who were initially externally motivated may come to realize that they enjoy exercise, later falling into the intrinsic motivation bucket.

Another example of extrinsic motivators can be as simple as badges within the FitPros App. Let’s say the challenge is to participate in as many sessions as one can within 30 days. The FitPros App not only tracks everyone who attends it will reward those people with a badge and they will have bragging rights in the public chat section of the App. Again, some employees may already love to join in on a session because they know it’ll be good for them. Others, not so much. But, external rewards can help extrinsically motivate people to try.

Take into account the SDT theory in addition to intrinsic and extrinsic motivators when finding ways to motivate your employees for workplace activities.

Intrinsic motivation

According to a study, intrinsic motivation is defined as doing an activity for inherent satisfaction rather than rewards or some other separable consequence. 

It’s the difference between running because you enjoy challenging yourself vs. running for a cash prize or to beat others. There’s likely to be some overlap, but most people usually fall into one of the two buckets.

In her blog, on Creating Meaning, Laura Putnam, Author and CEO of Motion Infusion says, "There simply is no shortcut when it comes to inspiring behavior change. Rather, our task is to do the hard work of tapping into intrinsic motivators, developing thoughtful programs that people actually want to take part in."

I have been a Fan Girl of Laura Putnam for years after reading her book, Workplace Wellness that Works: 10 Steps to Infuse Well-Being and Vitality into Any Organization. I agree with Laura wholeheartedly that ‘we’ can not force people to change their behaviors — people have to want to change for themselves. What we can do is create opportunities for your employees to experience the change and help guide them to see how it will benefit their health.

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation is all about rewards and incentives. It’s doing an activity for external prizes and satisfaction, whether praise, money, trophies and so on. The list can be as long as you want it to be.

At work, some people may be more externally motivated. Extrinsic motivators can come in a variety of forms. As simple as recognition for good work and praise for their effort. The point is that some employees need external gratification and to feel appreciated. 

There’s a time and place for both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators. Extrinsic motivators are fantastic to get people initially engaged in a corporate wellness program. Some people are deeply competitive and need recognition or rewards for their work — extrinsic motivators can help with that.

But, intrinsic motivation is where true behavior change occurs. Intrinsic motivation takes more commitment to the end goal. And, I'll say it, when your employees have the intrinsic motivation to attend the sessions you offer your engagement will increase and you'll see greater ROI.

As an employer, it’s your job to provide the right fuel to put in the motivation furnace. If you've caught on to the gist of this blog - a successful corporate wellbeing program needs a mix of internal and external motivators. Talk to a Success Manager on the FitPros team to learn how.

Tracking challenges with the FitPros app

The FitPros app allows you to track challenges at work, including movement challenges such as steps, miles, and check-ins. Further down our roadmap, we will offer other unique challenges such as:

  • Hydration - log how many ounces of water are consumed

  • Self-Care - perform activities to support positive mental wellbeing

  • Sleep - track how many hours of zzz's plus rate how well you feel

And, so much more! The FitPros app is designed to motivate your employees — you can leverage intrinsic and extrinsic motivators too!

We have a leaderboard for challenges and we can email gift cards or snail mail physical gifts (additional costs apply). Extrinsically motivated employees will enjoy earning badges to add to their profiles. Intrinsically motivated employees will recognize how attending the live sessions positively impacts their wellbeing.

Finally, when employees register and attend our live sessions and challenges, we share the ROI of that with the employer in real-time via a personalized dashboard. It's a win-win for all!

Contact us today to learn more!

Author: Lindsay Johnson, CEO and founder of FitPros


FitPros is a turn-key wellness provider empowering people to take charge of their personal health.

Contact FitPros to diversify your company’s wellbeing offerings and help employees meet their health & fitness goals.


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