Motivation 101: How Distinguishing the 6 Types of Motivation Can Improve Your Productivity and Well-Being

Asking “How can I get motivated?” is the wrong question! We are all motivated—but there are different types and qualities of motivation. Learn about the six different types of motivation, and how we can achieve more autonomous, better self-regulated motivation that boosts our effectiveness and livelihood.

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“Being a professional,” Julius Erving once said, “is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.” Erving had an intrinsic motivation to play basketball—but even that wasn’t enough to play at the superior level that was his trademark. Motivation is complex…you don’t just have it or lack it…it comes in different types. It takes conscious development, and self-discipline like Julius Erving’s, to achieve high quality motivation that produces amazing results and makes a whole, healthy, happy being.

In my previous article, Motivation 101: Why Rewards Often Don’t Work, we explored the first of two factors that affect people’s performance at work and their feeling of well-being in the work environment–The extent to which people meet their basic psychological needs. The three primary needs related to motivation are:

  1. Perceiving to have a choice in work decisions (Autonomy)
  2. Feeling related to others and to a higher purpose (Relatedness)
  3. Feeling challenged and able to increase abilities (Competency).

Now, let’s look at the second factor affecting performance and well-being—The types of motivation. Helping ourselves or others move toward a higher level of self-regulated, autonomous motivation leads to higher levels of innovation, accomplishment, and good health.

SDTAsking whether we or our workers are motivated, or how motivated they are, isn’t a very useful question. We are all motivated, all the time…but the type and direction of our motivation might not be the best for accomplishing goals or achieving happiness. A worker sitting in an important meeting thumbing through his Facebook feed is motivated—motivated to play with social media; but that motivation isn’t in a direction beneficial for his organization or for his longer term development. A worker playing video games or social media during a meeting probably has the most natural type of motivation—inherent, or intrinsic motivation. Inherent motivation comes in doing things that we love to do, just for the joy of doing them. People pursuing hobbies that have no reward other than the enjoyment of the action are inherently motivated. But to reach more optimum results in organizations and in personal lives, we need to recognize different types of motivation that are associated with increasing levels of self-regulation.

People who have jobs that they love just for the sake of doing it are extremely fortunate, indeed…but for the rest of us in the vast majority, we rely on supplementing any intrinsic motivation with various types of extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation means that our behavior comes from some source outside of ourselves—which can be physical rewards or punishments, or more abstract sources like a sense of obligation or commitment to values. Researchers identify four or five different types of extrinsic motivation, that can be aligned on a spectrum from types that are controlled, with low levels of self-regulation, to types that are autonomous, with high self-discipline.  Less effective motivation results when people feel they are being compelled, or controlled, by threat of punishment, promise of reward, or social pressures to behave a certain way. At higher levels of self-regulation, people with autonomous motivation, according to  Self-Determination Theory pioneers Deci, Olafson, and Ryan, are “engaged in an activity with a full sense of willingness, volition, and choice.” With higher quality levels of motivation, people’s psychological needs are also better satisfied. We can consider more autonomous, self-disciplined motivation as “optimal” in the sense that it is more engaged, enthusiastic, and sustainable.  Researcher Susan Fowler, author of Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work…and What Does, graphs the relationship between the types of motivation, the level of self-discipline involved in each type, and the extent to which the three basic psychological needs are met, which I combine in the illustration below with concepts and terms (those in parentheses) from Self-Determination Theory.


Motivation Types-Definitions

Disinterested – A lack of motivation. Not all sources will list this as a type of motivation.

External – Direct control over behavior by using threats of punishment or promise of reward.

Imposed (Introjected) – Behavior motivated by a lower form of self-control, such as a desire to please others or avoid disapproval.

Aligned (Identified) – Behavior resulting from personally identifying with the importance and value of that behavior.

Integrated – Fully engaged and purposeful behavior resulting from resolving any identity or alignment conflicts.

Inherent (Intrinsic) – Behavior engaged in just for the enjoyment of it, not requiring any external reward. Whereas this motivation satisfies psychological needs, and is highly autonomous, it does not require any great amount of self-regulation. Because it is inherent, it is sustainable, but may not always be positive.

Motivation Types-Examples

To further clarify, let’s take an example of a behavior we might desire in the workplace—an employee’s attendance and engagement with a training event. The illustration shows what a person might be thinking in each of the types of motivation.



The Importance of Understanding Differences in Motivation Types

There are at least two important points to grasping the usefulness of these categories. The first is that external rewards have been proven in multiple experiments to interfere with the higher levels of self-regulated, more autonomous motivation types. When people are offered external rewards, including apparently desirable things like higher pay, it can erode the sense of autonomy and take away inherent enjoyment in the behavior. (Please see the previous article for specific experimental results on this surprising phenomenon).

The second point is that we can adjust leadership styles, the work environment, and reward structures to affect the types of motivation experienced by ourselves and our team members. Often the difference between the types of motivation is a matter of perspective—opening one’s eyes to see how behavior aligns with values and principles. Successfully motivated people are able to make diverse connections between what they are doing and how it contributes to a larger picture. Researchers Deci, Olafson, and Ryan show that when individuals

  • understand the worth and purpose of their jobs
  • feel ownership and autonomy in carrying them out
  • receive clear feedback and supports

they are likely to become more autonomously motivated and reliably perform better, learn better, and be better adjusted. To improve your own motivation, or set the conditions for others to discover more autonomous levels of motivation, try the following specific, practical applications.

What Can We Do to Meet Psychological Needs and Develop More Autonomous Motivation?

  • Empathize. Imagine, with detail that includes emotion, other people’s perspective. Sincerely listen to and understand other’s ideas, seek their viewpoints, and virtually put yourself in their position. Don’t just listen to “facts,” but also to the feelings. This provides a positive atmosphere in which team members feel connected, competent, and safe to act autonomously.


  • Give Autonomy. Facilitate a proactive attitude by allowing group participation in decision making. Give autonomy in task, time, technique, and team selection.
    • Task — what things we work on
    • Time – when we do things and for how long
    • Technique – how we do things
    • Team – with whom we do things


  • Set Appropriate Goals

Goal-setting, when properly done, can be a powerful, positive motivator. However, like external rewards, goals set with the wrong principles or in the wrong circumstance can actually be detrimental. It helps to understand various ways of categorizing goals. The first is “extrinsic” versus “intrinsic” goals. Extrinsic goals are those related to wealth, appearance, or fame. Intrinsic goals are concerned with community, close relationships, personal growth. Because striving for intrinsic goals is more meaningful, it promotes more enthusiastic, energetic, and more sustainable behavior.

Another way to categorize goals is to distinguish between performance and learning goals. Performance goals involve hitting numbers, like sales targets, units produced, clients serviced, etc. If these goals diminish one’s perception of autonomy or erode a feeling of competency, they can be detrimental and anti-motivational in the workplace. Learning goals, on the other hand, focus on increasing autonomy and competency. Rather than pushing one to hit a sales or production target, a learning goal zeros in on becoming a master at the process. You can see how to effectively set goals at Positive Principles for Setting and Achieving Goals.

  • Provide Feedback that is informational, rather than controlling or demeaning.

Author Kim Cameron, in Positive Leadership: Strategies for Extraordinary Performance, outlines a plan for feedback known as the “Personal Management Interview.” The program involves two steps:

  1. Role Negotiation Session
  2. Regular (Usually Monthly) Updates

In the role negotiation session, the supervisor and worker make a contract. Areas that are or are not negotiable are identified, with an explanation for their classification. Most importantly, the initial session clarifies expectation on the following areas:

  • Role performance
  • Areas of responsibility
  • Accountability and rewards
  • Interpersonal relationships
  • Mission, goals, and values

The Regular sessions should last approximately 45-60 minutes, with the objectives to collaborate on improving performance and, most importantly, strengthening the positive nature of the work environment, relationships, communication, and meaning of work. Honoring the regular sessions, with a sincere and thoughtful effort from both sides, communicates that the organization is committed to meeting needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competency, while the employee is proactive in improving autonomous motivation. According to Cameron, sample agenda items can include:

  • Accountability for commitments made in past sessions
  • Leadership and organizational issues
  • Information sharing
  • Interpersonal issues
  • Obstacles to improvement
  • Training in necessary skills
  • Individual needs
  • Feedback on job performance and on personal capabilities
  • Resource needs
  • Targets and goals
  • Career development
  • Personal concerns or problems
  • Action items for next session

Figuring out the complexity of motivation is perhaps the biggest challenge of leadership. After all, Dwight Eisenhower succinctly defined leadership by saying that it is “The art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” Decades of investigation into this topic have improved our understanding of why and how we do the things that we do. Grasping the three basic psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competency, along with their relationship to the spectrum of motivation types, provides a powerful tool to getting ourselves and others motivated in the right direction for the right purpose.


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