Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic

Do you want to be happy and highly motivated? Do you want your team to be happy and highly motivated? I know I do! But where do we start? Well…we start with the brain.

I’m fascinated by psychology and the brain. The brain holds so many secrets and solutions. Brain research is constantly revealing new insights and discoveries. Discoveries that redefine our understanding of human nature. The brain is truly remarkable:

Impressive right!? What fascinates me most about the brain is the link between our conscious experiences (thoughts, behavior, sight, movement, speech, etc.) and the subconscious/biological happenings in the brain (dopamine transfer, memory, fear, adrenaline, electric impulses, etc.). Every second more is happening in our brain than we can comprehend. Things that are imperceptible to our “conscious self” are impacting us in ways we may not even understand.

There are also things that we are aware of but we don’t understand their significance. Something as simple as goal setting can set us up for failure personally and professionally. I’m not talking about setting SMART goals. I’m talking about the goals we choose to set! The goals that we pursue impact our mood, attitude, and our outlook more than we realize. What we do, think about, tell ourselves, and pursue actually changes the neuroscience of our brain. Scientific research surrounding happiness reveals some interesting insight into how we are motivated. This research is not just for scientists or academics. Leaders can also benefit from these discoveries. One of the key concepts necessary for understanding motivation is “intrinsic vs. extrinsic” goals:

  • Intrinsic: an intrinsic property is a property that an object or a thing has of itself, independently of other things, including its context. Examples of intrinsic values/goals:
    • Autonomy
    • Mastery
    • Purpose
    • Self-Worth
  • Extrinsic: an extrinsic property is a property that depends on a thing’s external interactions or properties outside of itself. Examples of extrinsic values/goals:
    • Rewards
    • Prestige
    • Punishment
    • Compensation

Research shows that happiness is directly linked to our ability to satisfy intrinsic needs. Extrinsic needs are important and necessary BUT considerably less impactful to our happiness than our intrinsic needs. When our intrinsic needs are met our brain releases dopamine and in turn we feel happy! The challenge is that many of us focus most our time, stress, and energy pursuing extrinsic goals. Achieving and sustaining happiness based on extrinsic fulfillment is fleeting. Money or prestige can never fulfill our intrinsic needs, our brains just aren’t wired that way.

  1. Do you set, pursue, or achieve intrinsic goals?
  2. Does your team?
  3. Are your employees happy?
  4. Do you create an environment that supports the pursuit of intrinsic goals?
  5. Do you know how your employees are motivated?

Dave, what’s with all of this talk about happiness, I thought this was a professional development blog? I’m not saying every leader needs a “hugs and sunshine policy.” I am saying that you won’t reach your potential until you understand the link between intrinsic goals and happiness. Neither will your team. You also can’t maximize productivity until you understand how extrinsic goals and motivation work together. Here’s the key points:

  1. Until you understand and fulfill your intrinsic needs you will never sustain happiness.
  2. Happy people are more motivated, productive and resilient than their frowning counterparts.
  3. People are motivated for their reasons, not yours. (This is true for intrinsic and extrinsic needs/goals.)
  4.  Leaders who support and enable their teams to pursue their goals (whether directly or indirectly), will have more motivated/productive employees.
  5. Happy, fulfilled, motivated, and productive employees are essential for achieving success, however you define it!

So what does that look like? How do we support an employee’s intrinsic goals? Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Autonomy
    • “Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.” – General George S. Patton 
  • Mastery
    • “Order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject.” – Thomas Mann
  • Purpose
    • “A leader has the vision and conviction that a dream can be achieved. He inspires the power and energy to get it done.” – Ralph Lauren
    • “You’ve got to think about big things while you’re doing small things, so that all the small things go in the right direction.” – Alvin Toffler
  • Self-Worth
    • “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

How do you apply these quotes/ideas into a business environment? Here’s an example:

  • Autonomy
    • I need to allow my team the flexibility to solve problems on their own. I’ll monitor their progress and offer guidance but I won’t micromanage every step.
  • Mastery
    • I’m going to simplify my goals, expectations and processes. I’ll dedicate time for additional training so it’s clear what needs to be done AND how to do it. I’ll also recognize employee’s who are masters at their job.
  • Purpose
    • I’m going to create a big goal! Staggeringly BIG! I plan on starting every meeting with a review of the goal and our progress toward it. I’m also going to share how each person contributes to the goal through their daily accomplishments. 
  • Self-Worth
    • I’m going to become more diligent in my coaching. Specifically, recognizing the employee’s strengths and delivering firm coaching in a way that preserves their dignity, self-esteem, and confidence. 

How can  you apply each of the quotes/ideas above into your business?


Here’s 9 more ideas (refer back to the Rise Above activity as needed):

  • What are 5 (minimum, feel free to create more) intrinsic goals that you are pursuing?
  • What are 5 (minimum, feel free to create more) extrinsic goals that you are pursuing?
  • If you ONLY achieved your INTRINSIC goals, how would you rate your happiness?
  • If you ONLY achieved your EXTRINSIC goals, how would you rate your happiness?
  • Prioritize your goals in terms of their lasting value to you.
  • Write an “S” next to goals that are static (you achieve it once and then move on).
  • Write a “D” next to goals that are dynamic (on-going, never fully achieved/kept).
  • What daily behaviors/habits do you have in place to reach/sustain you dynamic goals?
  • What is you next static goal once you achieve your “S” goals?

Thanks for reading!




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