How to keep your employees motivated

Bibi Boas Bondesen

IESF showcase: Attract and develop your employees and create better results

It has been more than a year with the pandemic. Working from home, keeping your distance, and sanitizing hands like never before. How do we stay motivated? Society shames people that do not comply with the recommendations. We look at posters reminding us to wear a mask in the Supermarket. Pia Torreck, partner of IESF Denmark Ingvardsen & Partners shares with us a showcase on how human motivation works. Everything in the workplace has changed, but what keeps employees motivated and what employers and leaders can do remains the same. The best method could be to look for Intrinsic Motivation. The possibility to enhance self-determination and competence. But pay attention to the human need for relatedness. Having meaningful relations and cohesion. This article is about Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation – and how you can get engaged employees.

Intrinsic motivation
Torreck: “Pay your children to do their hobby – and their Intrinsic motivation will vanish. When you are asking the wrong question, you will get the wrong answer. The interesting question is not how you motivate others, but how you make others motivate themselves. Employees should always be motivated, even when the manager is not present.”  In the beginning of the 1970s, Edward Deci executed several experiments which proved the fact that if you remunerate people with a few dollars to perform an activity, they display less interest in the activity when the reward cease, compared to those who are asked to execute the activity without a reward. Thus, one must be cautious of rewarding children with cash-rewards when they are performing well in school. The two American psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan explain the phenomena by pointing towards the fact that Extrinsic rewards attenuate Intrinsic motivation. If you reward an A+ with 50$, you bring the child’s attention away from the interesting aspects in the school-course, and towards the Extrinsic target – to be paid 50$.

Self Determination Theory
During the last four decades, Deci and Ryan have developed their distinction between Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation into a comprehensive theory of humans’ psychological nature – “Self Determination Theory” (SDT). They claim the fact that humans, as conscious living organisms, inhabit a spontaneous and innate desire to explore the outside world and compare themselves to it. A desire which will give the best opportunities for development, and make people thrive and flourish. SDT describes the human need of self-determination, relatedness, and competence. SDT also describes how motivation and behavior will be affected by punishment, rewards, values, and identity.

The three needs
Torreck: “Deci and Ryan claim that in SDT humans have three fundamental needs which are equally important. When a person gets these psychological needs fulfilled, their Intrinsic motivation will increase. The three needs can look a lot like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Deci and Ryan’s SDT motivation theory perceives the three needs to be equal – and not hierarchical.”

  1. Self-determination
    SDT works with the basic assumption that an individual’s motivation will decrease, if it is governed, whilst motivation will increase if the individual has freedom to manage itself. When people have the freedom to make their own decisions, thus having influence on time and tasks, their motivation to solve tasks will increase. When people choose their own tasks, time, and method to execute their job, the probability for Intrinsic motivation will increase as well.
  2. Competence
    Man has a fundamental need to learn, to feel competent and to develop. This means that the task must be adapted to the individual, so that the opportunity for successful experiences is created. When a person experiences being able to master a task, the probability of Intrinsic motivation increases.
  3. Relatedness
    Man has a need to belong, to be a part of something; to feel cohesion. In some places this need is translated into meaning elsewhere in purpose. When employees’ need for cohesion is met, the probability of Intrinsic motivation increases. Note that a cleaning job can easily be a calling. It depends on what narrative the staff hears: “If the doctor’s tools are not cleaned, the patients will die.”

The most important steps to improve engagement and keep employees motivated
Torreck: “Here are some suggestions, based on our employee engagement research, on how you can create the best employee experiences possible in this difficult situation.”

  1. Create a sense of belonging
  2. Enable teamwork and collaboration
  3. Recognize and reward good work
  4. Show employees that their work is meaningful
  5. Give employees the freedom and authority to make decisions

Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation

According to Deci and Ryan, Intrinsic motivation is an extremely powerful form of motivation. People will execute tasks simply for the satisfaction and enjoyment that the task itself provides. Money, praise, and recognition do not matter. Intrinsic motivation is often compared to the condition described as Flow. Flow is the denotation of forgetting space and time (including oneself), whilst being spellbound by task solving. According to Ryan & Deci, the inner motivation is characterized by the school student having an inner drive and interest in learning, and therefore experiencing satisfaction by immersing himself in a subject. On the contrary, the Extrinsic motivation is conditional to the student’s expectation, of what he or she will be rewarded with subsequently, e.g., praise, a good grade, an exciting job etc. Extrinsic motivation has different aspects. Humans can be motivated to a certain behavior by Extrinsic influences, for an example the carrot-and-stick. When there is no stick, or the carrot is removed, the behavior will cease. Extrinsic motivation can affect people’s motivation and behavior via values and opinions as well. When society talks about not driving with alcohol in your blood, these values and attitudes will influence the behavior of the citizen. When everyone talks about buying eggs from free-range hens, the customer’s behavior will be affected.

Personal values, attitudes and identity
Personal values and attitudes arise in an interaction with the surroundings. When society, parents, teachers, colleagues, or neighbors have talked about going to school and getting an education, behavior will slowly emerge that may feel self-determined but is influenced from the outside. Not driving under the influence of alcohol has most likely become your own value and attitude. Now you also point this out to others. Your identity is also shaped by Extrinsic influences. When you identify with the role or job. When you identify with the values and attitudes associated with the task solution. “I am not just going to scout meetings – I am a scout”.

Image: The motivation spectrum
In the figure below the degree of motivation is described. A movement from “Required to”, “Should”, “Like it”, and “Love it”. The more self-determination, competence, and relatedness – the more people can move towards Intrinsic motivation.

The intrinsic motivation of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci

About the author

Bibi Boas Bondesen


Director Executive Search, Head of International


  • Executive Search Consultant
  • Head of Business Development
  • Trade Support
  • Client Services Manager

Bibi has delivered Executive Search to a wide range of industries.
Bibi has most recently worked with Executive Search at Spencer Stuart and The Ashton Partnership in London, and she was previously employed by Morgan Stanley.
She has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Mathematics and Statistics from the London School of Economics and an MBA from Copenhagen Business School.

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