Motivation Matters: Leadership

Are results the final metric of success? The bottom line is much more than finances or growth metrics when it comes to leadership. The end doesn’t always justify the means. Good leaders will seek to understand the dynamics of motivation, but great leaders know it matters and why.

What is Motivation?

Deci and Ryan (2018) succinctly outlined the etymological thrust of motivation as “what moves people to action” (p. 13). A misunderstanding or mishandling of motivation typically focuses solely on the action without regard to what moves people and at the expense of the people themselves. It is often framed as either intrinsic or extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation moves people to action based on their inherent drives and desires, and extrinsic motivation moves people to action due to external stimuli.

Why Does Motivation Matter?

Leaders in all types of organizational contexts heavily rely upon “assumptions about human potential and individual performance that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science” (Pink, 2009, p. 9). Accordingly, they “pursue practices such as short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes in the face of mounting evidence that such measures usually don’t work and often do harm” (Pink, 2009, p. 9).

Motivation matters because it is the difference between treating symptoms and finding the cure. Throwing a pizza party may grant a shot in the arm to office morale, but if people feel unheard, unfulfilled, and micromanaged, the positive impact will be short-lived. It may also morph into resentment.

Motivation matters because people aren’t merely raw materials to accomplish goals. Loyalty and longevity evaporate when employees are viewed as expendable pawns to get the desired checkmate. Productivity also suffers. Schwartz (2010) contrasted short-term superficial productivity by fear and squeezing with a larger perspective of rest, renewal, and reflection. What good is a bump in sales in the first quarter if your workforce turnover rate skyrockets in the third quarter? People aren’t expendable, and the human spirit is no mere expenditure in pursuit of profit.

Motivation matters because understanding it and effectively wielding it is a severely untapped resource. “Research consistently shows that people who experience meaningful work report better health, more well-being, and a clearer sense of teamwork and engagement” (Hansen, Amabile, Snook, and Craig, 2018, p. 94). Because every person is unique, there is no universal method to leverage motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

Advocates for intrinsic motivation tend to paint reliance on external stimuli as harmful. Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation aren’t opposites like good and evil. They are a complex intermix of personality, need, and desire that wise leaders learn to tap into appropriately within the proper contexts. Minimizing aspects like compensation, benefits, and bonuses can be as counterproductive as ignoring autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

Nonetheless, the drive for results often leads to reliance on incentives and punishments instead of improving communication, fostering teamwork, or improving emotional intelligence. Using carrots and sticks impacts compliance; however, there is a tradeoff. Contrasting the era of compliance with a new emerging philosophy of work, Thomas (2010) highlighted the sufficiency of extrinsic rewards in the past to “buy rote behavior” and their failure to “appeal to workers’ passions, commitment, initiative, or even enlist much of their intelligence” (p. 6).

Striking the Balance

Leading well and learning well are inextricable. Great leaders will round out their leadership repertoire with tools that encompass the well-being of their organization and their people. That means having the appropriate extrinsic motivational paradigms to meet needs and operating with a capacity to learn and grow in intrinsic motivational paradigms by which people feel valued, connected, and empowered.

Three C’s to Get Started

Communication, caring, and community is by no means an exhaustive list of areas to cultivate intrinsic motivation, but they are a starting point. The practices listed below represent my experience as an employee and leader over the past twenty years.


  • Strive for clarity and make your communication as concise as possible
  • Use multiple channels to communicate the same message
  • Find ways to integrate your personality as you speak, write, and facilitate discussions
  • Always assume that you’ve under-communicated


  • Schedule regular check-in meetings
  • Use informal conversations to stay updated on people’s lives
  • Regularly check to see that people’s tangible needs are being met
  • Make mental health a part of creating an environment where people are cared for


  • Encourage and provide the means for networking and professional development
  • Provide opportunities and participate in chances to be together in informal contexts
  • Be mindful of including remote workers and intentional to schedule time together with digital teams
  • Celebrate wins together

I’ve had the privilege to work for leaders who practiced these concepts, and I’ve had the misfortune of serving under leaders who misunderstood or disregarded motivation. The first kind of leader inspired everyone in the organization to strive for greatness, while the second contributed to a toxic work environment.

Motivation probably seems like an abstract idea more than a leadership strategy. It isn’t an easy concept to get your head wrapped around or practically implement. It takes time, willingness to learn, flexibility, and a genuine desire to harness motivation’s power to invest in people. Far more than the practical benefits, motivation matters because people matter.


Harvard Business Review, Morten T. Hansen, Teresa M. Amabile, Scott A. Snook, & Nick Craig. (2018). Purpose, Meaning, and Passion (HBR Emotional Intelligence Series). Harvard Business Review Press.

Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). SELF-DETERMINATION THEORY: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. S.l.: GUILFORD.

Schwartz, T. (2014, July 23). The Productivity Myth. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved May 14, 2022, from

Thomas, K. W. (2010). Intrinsic motivation at work: What really drives employee engagement. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

-Photo by Nazrin Babashova on Unsplash

Chris Dunn
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