What Motivates Us to Work Better?

The higher the salary, the higher the work motivation, right? Well, not really. 

Of course, if the external reward, such as money, is great enough, we'll keep at even the most unpleasant tasks. But, as Fischbach (1) explains, people usually do the minimum required to meet the goal in such situations. This means that extrinsic motivation alone is unlikely to help us truly excel. (Extrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome - such as a higher salary. On the other hand, intrinsically motivated people do something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable (2)).

So, back to money. It can indeed be a motivator, but is it for everyone? Keep reading, and learn something new about what motivates us to work better and engage more.

It seems that a higher salary is something that younger employees find motivating. A study by Rožman, Trever and Čančer (3) showed that motivation and satisfaction change as individuals age. More specifically, young employees (younger than 50 years of age) showed the highest agreement on average with the following motivating factors: 

  • higher salary
  • the possibility of advancement
  • and the opportunity for training and education. 

This means that for younger employees, money is the number one motivator.

On the other hand, older employees, for better performance at work, highly agree with the following motivating factors:

  • flexibility in the workplace
  • the possibility of autonomy at work
  • good relationships between employees
  • the possibility of working at their own pace
  • respect between employees
  • equal treatment of employees by age. 

Why is this important? 

In order to compete effectively in the global marketplace, companies should design jobs to reduce stress and increase the motivation and satisfaction of employees. The primary condition for the successful management of employees in the organization is reflected in the support for high motivation and satisfaction of employees at different ages. Positive changes for age-diverse employees in the workplace will increase work performance. Motivated and satisfied employees tend to retain a high level of innovation, higher-quality work, and a higher level of efficiency. For older employees, increased motivation and satisfaction in the workplace could be essential for dealing with changes in working capabilities and significantly impact the well-being of age-diverse employees. 

There is so much a company can do to make its employees motivated and happy. But, it is effective self-motivation that distinguishes high-achieving professionals from everyone else. This is where we enter the world of intrinsic motivation.

In her research, Fischbach (1) has shown that intrinsic motives predict achievement and success better than extrinsic ones. So, how do we intrinsically motivate ourselves?

Intrinsic motivation is about emotions (4). Basically, intrinsic rewards are those things about work that feel good - that generate positive emotions. To harness intrinsic motivation is to understand these emotions and amplify them. Focus on emotions such as joy (when you see your students have understood the lesson), pride (when your customer increases their sales after using your app), and inspiration (when you brainstorm with your colleagues and get new ideas). And think of these emotions as a circle - the more positive emotions about and at work you feel, the more motivated you are. The more motivated you are, the better results you achieve. The better the results, the more positive emotions you feel. 

To achieve these feelings, set the right goals. Don't forget - making SMART goals is a step closer to achieving them. Let's compare these goals:

I want to do better at work.


I want to finish an excel course before the next quartal to make my work easier.

I want to get a B2 certificate in German by the end of August to make more presentations for German clients. 

For each of these goals, set mini-goals and track the progress. Also, if your goals are too easy to achieve, you might not get that feeling of pride and success. Challenging work is a great motivator, as it can keep employees engaged and interested in their role. For many people, having to overcome some level of difficulty in their work is much preferable to the boredom of an easy, unchallenging job. So, set a bar a bit higher than you did the last time. Not too much, but something that will take you a step out of your comfort zone. Achieving these goals is more rewarding, and the positive feelings are stronger.

Have you found some of those positive emotions in your work? 

Think about them, amplify them, and get back to work :)

Getting yourself intrinsically motivated might be hard to learn, but it's critical to your success.


(1) Fischbach, A. (November - December 2018). How to Keep Working When You're Just Not Feeling It. Harvard Business Review. 138–141

(2) Ryan, R. & Deci, E. (2000). Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions. Contemporary Educational Psychology 25, 54–67 (2000)

(3) Rožman, B., Treven, S., Čančer, V. (2017). Motivation and Satisfaction of Employees in the Workplace. Business Systems Research, 8(2), 14-25.

(4) Thomas, K. (2000). Intrinsic Motivation at Work: Building Energy and Commitment. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.