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New Research Shows Intrinsic Motivation Is Crucial at Work

How our motivations explain our performance and well-being on the job.

Key points

  • Intrinsic motivation explains 45% of the variance in work behaviors and well-being.
  • Being motivated through values is most strongly associated with work performance.
  • It is important to promote intrinsic motivation by making employees feel competent, autonomous, and related to others.
  • Motivation through money is overrated.
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When we are motivated to work due to enjoyment or our values, we perform better on the job and experience more well-being, as I have previously written. Now, a new meta-analysis I collaborated on can tell us more about the benefits of being intrinsically motivated or motivated out of values we identify with.

This meta-analysis included 124 studies that looked at the outcomes associated with having different types of work motivation. By far, intrinsic motivation, that is, putting in effort at work out of enjoyment and interest, was the type of motivation most strongly associated with positive outcomes: being engaged at work, being satisfied with your work, feeling attached and committed to your employer, and being proactive at work. It was also the type of motivation most strongly associated with lower levels of burnout, lower intentions to leave one’s job, and a lower likelihood of engaging in counterproductive behaviors, such as calling in sick when not, interpersonal conflict, and stealing from the employer.

Though intrinsic motivation was also associated with work performance, putting in effort at work out of valuing the work, not necessarily enjoying it, was actually the most important motive associated with work performance. This type of motivation usually occurs when people feel that their work is important and has a positive impact on others or the environment. This type of motivation was associated with the same good outcomes brought about by intrinsic motivation.

When we compare the contribution of these two types of motivation to employee outcomes, intrinsic motivation accounts for over 45 percent of the variance on average in all the work-related outcomes mentioned above. However, being motivated through values accounts for an additional 22 percent. This means that being motivated out of enjoyment and values is really what drives us to perform at work. It is also what makes or breaks our work-related well-being.

What’s left, then? Another 9 percent of motivation comes from rewards and punishments, such as pay, bonuses, promotions, and keeping your job. This form of motivation is most associated with staying with an employer because there are no better options out there. It was not strongly associated with performance, nor with well-being. This means that the energy and resources organizations spend on creating complex financial incentive systems may not be crucial in maintaining productive and happy employees. I do not mean to say that money is not important; we all need money to survive in our world. But using pay as a carrot to get employees to perform may not be as effective as many claim it is.

Another 12 percent of performance comes from motivation based on pride and shame, which is mostly associated with feelings of loyalty to the employer and doing things outside of one’s job description for the employer (called citizenship behaviors). But it was also associated with lower well-being.

In summary, our meta-analysis shows that organizations have everything to gain from promoting intrinsic motivation and motivation through values. This can be achieved by ensuring that employees feel competent, autonomous, and related to others at work. Indeed, another meta-analysis showed that the satisfaction of these three psychological needs is crucial to the promotion of these good types of motivation.


Van den Broeck, A., Howard, J., Van Vaerenbergh, Y., Leroy, H., & Gagné, M. (2021). Beyond intrinsic and extrinsic motivation: A meta-analysis on self-determination theory’s multidimensional conceptualization of work motivation. Organizational Psychology Review, 11(3), 240-273.

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