Career Development

Intrinsic Rewards: What They Are and Why They're Important

February 8, 2021

If you’re a manager, it’s likely keeping your employees motivated is among your top concerns. This is especially true in competitive industries, like sales and technology, and those where people have to do a lot of routine tasks, like manufacturing or office administration. Understanding intrinsic rewards is tantamount to driving results. In this article, we define intrinsic rewards and explain their role in creating an effective workplace to learn and grow by offering intrinsic rewards examples.

What are intrinsic rewards?

There are two broad categories of rewards that managers might keep in their toolkit to increase motivation among team members; these are extrinsic and intrinsic rewards.

Extrinsic rewards are ones that you’re more likely to notice in the workplace because they include tangible rewards, like a monetary bonus or an extra day off of work. Intrinsic rewards are harder to identify because they vary from person to person, and they aren’t tangible. Intrinsic rewards include things like a sense of pride, personal fulfillment from completion of an activity, gaining a new skill and feeling like an important part of a team.

Related: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Motivation

Why are intrinsic rewards important?

There are two broad categories of rewards that managers might keep in their toolkit to increase motivation among team members—extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. Extrinsic rewards include tangible rewards such as a monetary bonus or an extra day off of work. They are controlled by people other than you. Intrinsic rewards are intangible, psychological rewards that you get from a job well done. These vary from person to person and include things like a sense of pride, personal fulfillment from completing an activity, gaining a new skill and feeling like an important part of a team.

Intrinsic rewards examples in the workplace

Below are some intrinsic rewards that may impact your workforce. Fostering these activities and feelings in the work environment could help your team grow and thrive:

  • Completing meaningful tasks
  • Letting employees be selective
  • Gaining a sense of competence
  • Making noticeable progress
  • Feeling inspired to be more responsible
  • Being an important part of an organization or team
  • Feeling accomplished
  • Mastery of knowledge or a skill
  • Feeling pride 

Completing tasks that are meaningful

When employees complete meaningful tasks, that could provide an intrinsic reward. Managers can take advantage of this reward by talking to employees to determine what they think are the most important parts of their job and helping them structure their day around tasks that give them a feeling of purpose.

Example: “Shelly works as a shift manager in retail, and feels like the most meaningful part of her job is training employees. Shelly’s manager decides to include Shelly in training planning sessions going forward. As a result, Shelly is motivated to be the best retail manager because she is doing something she finds personally rewarding.”

Related: Management Styles: Overview and Examples

Letting employees be selective

Some employees feel rewarded when they get to make choices throughout the day and structure their own workday. Giving employees some freedom to prioritize their own tasks and complete them as they see fit could be an intrinsic motivator for your team.

Example: “As a media producer, Carson knows that every day he is responsible for certain tasks that go into creating the daily news. Carson feels rewarded when his employer lets him choose how to structure his day, as long as all his tasks are completed successfully. Carson’s employer recognizes this trait in Carson and embraces it by making sure Carson has the freedom to schedule his day, provided the news is produced efficiently.”

Gaining a sense of competence

When employees feel like they are doing a good job, that can be a reward in itself. If your employees are tasked with completing complex tasks, simply doing those tasks over and over again until they feel comfortable and confident in their abilities offers intrinsic reward opportunities.

Example: “Minerva is a chemical engineer who studies metal alloys. She started using a new piece of equipment that posed a new challenge, but as she became more comfortable with the equipment and her competence grew, she felt rewarded. Minerva’s employer could keep Minerva motivated by letting her be the person who learns new equipment and processes, then teaches them to the team.”

Related: 10 Tips for Being More Goal-Oriented at Work

Making noticeable progress

When people can see their progress, they are more likely to receive intrinsic rewards from it. As a manager, you can create an environment where people can see progress and learn from mistakes to reap the benefit of motivation.

Example: “Henry is a personal trainer. He asks his clients to take before and after photos. Henry has worked with dozens of clients at the gym that employs him. When he’s feeling like he needs some motivation, he looks at the wall that shows all of the before and after photos and feels motivated to continue doing his good work. His motivation comes from the sense of accomplishment he feels when he sees the good work he has done.”

Feeling inspired to be more responsible

Earning increased responsibility is a way some employers show a job well done. When people feel inspired to take on more responsibility, they may get a greater sense of accomplishment even though their role hasn’t changed too much. 

Example: “Martha is a cashier at the grocery store. She feels rewarded when she gets there early and her supervisor lets her clock in to help with daily sandwich prep at the deli counter. Martha’s intrinsic motivation is that she’s learning a new skill and developing at work. Martha’s employers could take that as a sign that Martha is ready to develop, and they could give her more responsibilities.”

Being an important part of an organization or team

Feeling like your role is an important part of the team or organization you work within offers intrinsic rewards that could motivate employees to do more and stay focused. That’s because being recognized by your team members as playing a vital role feels good.

Example: “Hadley is a project manager in a DevOps workforce. Today, Hadley is starting his first sprint. As scrum master, he will play an important role in keeping the team on track to meet goals. This makes Hadley feel important, accomplished and recognized for his good work.”

Feeling accomplished

There are several ways that employees might gain a sense of accomplishment at work. This could be learning a new skill, completing an objective, working on a project or being recognized as an important contributor, to name a few. 

Example: “Melanie is a writer. She recently increased her writing speed to 500 words in 30 minutes and feels a sense of accomplishment that motivates her to do more. Her motivator is that she sees measurable improvement. Melanie could bolster her writing business by tracking her progress and relishing in small milestones.”

Mastery of knowledge or a skill

Gaining knowledge of a new skill provides intrinsic benefits that could result in greater motivation. This one is relatively simple for employers to set up to reap the benefit of motivated employees by offering training and opportunities for employees to gain new skills. This could be in the form of online courses, on-the-job cross-training between roles or group retreats geared at education.

Example: “Percy is an accounting specialist. He has the opportunity to train with the company’s controller to learn new skills. This makes Percy feel motivated to continue to do great work in accounting, because he wants to build a career in the field and getting special attention from the controller feels like a step in the right direction.”

Feeling pride in what you do

Taking pride in your work can offer intrinsic rewards. Achieving a sense of pride from having others admire your work can have the same effect. When people feel like they’ve accomplished something substantial, they are likely to feel proud. Managers can use extrinsic motivators like words of affirmation to inspire this intrinsic motivator in their employees.

Example: “Velma is a house painter. She completed the trim of a house in bright white. Her supervisor said, “You did a really great job, Velma. Keep it up,” and she felt a strong sense of pride in her paint job. That feeling of pride motivates Velma to keep doing good work. She especially appreciates words of affirmation because they make her feel accomplished.”

Levels of intrinsic rewards 

Studies suggest people experience intrinsic rewards in different levels that correspond with things like mood and how people feel about work:

High engagement

Some people will experience high engagement with intrinsic rewards. These people are highly motivated to succeed by internal factors. They feel energized and positive when intrinsic rewards manifest in the workplace.

Mid-range engagement

Many people find themselves engaging with intrinsic rewards at a moderate level. For example, you might feel like you’ve made progress at your job, but not developed your skills enough to get a promotion. The skill development you did do may feel satisfying and meaningful, though you know you aren’t where you need to be yet.

Low engagement

People who experience low engagement with intrinsic rewards at work are less likely to be satisfied with their job and may struggle to find meaning in their tasks and duties.

How to create high engagement at work

To create a work culture of high engagement, you should:

1. Create engagement purposefully

Intrinsic rewards are abstract, and that can pose challenges when communicating them to the people who are supposed to develop programs that appeal to intrinsic motivations. For example, simply talking with a company’s HR department and asking them to develop an intrinsic rewards program may not be the right solution because of the complex nature of intrinsic rewards.

A better solution is to ensure that intrinsic motivators are a part of the company’s culture and values. That may take new training initiatives, manager or corporate retreats, motivational speeches, deploying new management styles and more. Consider what motivators are important to your employees and how to purposefully make them an engaging part of the corporate culture.

2. Focus on your mid-range engagers

Once you’ve established a company culture where intrinsic rewards are prioritized, HR can develop a measurable program that employees are likely to understand. A good group to focus on is the mid-range engagers. For one, there tends to be more of them than outlying categories, so you have the opportunity to move a larger group toward intrinsic rewards. Second, they represent a group that’s already somewhat engaged, so they may be more receptive to intrinsic rewards than lower engagement groups.

3. Think about change management

Make an entire culture shift and implementing new intrinsic reward programs at the same time is a lot of change for any organization. Look to large organizations that have made similar cultural shifts to understand the best change management practices for your company.

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