Cultivating intrinsic motivation for lasting success

intrinsic motivation

I am incredibly self-motivated and always have been. I love my work so much that, like others who have built a business around their strengths and passions, the line between work and life can sometimes get a little too blurred. (In my case, my two little ones are very much holding me accountable when it comes to setting and respecting my boundaries!) Even so, it’s hard not to be led by external recognition and validation in the form of likes and comments, sales and revenue, and feedback (whether positive or negative). How can we go about cultivating intrinsic motivation so that we become less attached to the end result or, at least, less attached to what other people think and say?

The inevitability of good girl syndrome

Although I hate to use the word ‘syndrome’, I have written many times about the classic traits of the good girl that I developed as an inevitable outcome of my childhood and education. School is all about finding the right answer and getting that gold star, the pat on the back, and the ‘good girl’ validation from our teachers, parents, and exam results. It is hardly surprising that those of us who thrived on meeting these expectations emerge from the system with a need still to search for the correct answer and to get the gold star validation even as an adult.

As we will soon experience in the real world, however, life is not about finding the one right answer (in fact, there is no such thing). And, if we wait for that ‘good job’ confirmation from our bosses and peers, we will continue to be driven by those external expectations and pressures – and we may well be waiting for a very long time when that positive feedback is not forthcoming.

The theory of motivation

When it comes to research on the topic of motivation, experts like Maslow and Herzberg have highlighted the ‘hygiene factors’ or the lower levels of the human needs hierarchy in the form of safety and security. They then point to the higher-level needs or ‘motivators’ in the form of esteem, recognition, and opportunities for advancement and personal growth. It’s obvious in today’s context that simply providing a safe working environment and a steady salary is not sufficient to motivate employees to do their best work (and, of course, the absence of job security is hardly going to boost motivation either).

Self-Determination Theory looks at the difference between external motivation – school grades, ratings and incentives at work, concern about what other people might think – and the more powerful intrinsic motivation – where you are driven by an inherent interest, curiosity, or sense of purpose. The theory considers the basic human needs of autonomy (acting out of choice), competence (mastery), and relatedness (belonging and connectedness with others) and how these drive intrinsic motivation, and more broadly both psychological wellbeing and optimal performance. It also argues that external goals like the classic desire for fame and fortune (that is, things like financial success, beauty, and popularity) are correlated with lower levels of wellbeing.

It’s clear that extrinsic motivation, such as financial incentives or fear of consequences (for example from not following calls to return full-time to the office?), can lead to short-term compliance but is unlikely to sustain long-term engagement, passion, and fulfilment (cue ‘quiet quitting’ and looking for a new job). Rather, it’s intrinsic motivation and the inner drive for success – rooted in personal values, purpose, autonomy, mastery, and genuine enjoyment of the work itself – that will be more effective for you as an individual and, by extension, for your employer as well.

Cultivating intrinsic motivation

Right, that’s the science bit out of the way. I find this all particularly interesting as someone who runs my own business, again, because I am inherently self-motivated but also because it means that I’m missing some of the important structures and support systems that can help to keep it that way.

For example, I am responsible for identifying and investing in my own training and development opportunities, not to mention designing my whole work environment; I may lack some of the connectedness and belonging that is so important (and, indeed, solopreneurship can be a lonely journey if you’re not intentional about creating this piece for yourself); and I also lack mentorship or feedback, unless, again, I actively seek this out.

So, while my own situation is ‘extreme’ in a sense, even if you are an employee, if you are engaging in self-leadership (as I believe you should be!) then a lot of the responsibility for cultivating intrinsic motivation lies with you, rather than with your employer.

What do you think? Are you driven by external factors or by your inner drive? Are you still looking for that external validation or do you find reward in your own personal fulfilment?

Looking forward to your thoughts!

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