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Motivation Theory and Leadership

Last updated 29th Nov 2022
Anyone that's in a leadership role should understand how employees are motivated, and what they can do as a leader to keep them motivated. The word is often defined as "getting someone moving." Theory breaks down these forces into both internal or intrinsic motivation, as well as external or extrinsic motivation.

Motivation Theory

When someone gets motivated, or tries to get someone else moving, they are developing the incentives or conditions they believe will help move a person to a desired behavior. Whether it's intrinsic or extrinsic, most individuals are moved by their beliefs, values, personal interests, and even fear. One of the more difficult challenges for a leader is to learn how to effectively motivate those working for them. This is difficult to master because what triggers this action can be so personal. A misconception held by inexperienced leaders is the same factors that motivate one employee, or the leader themselves, will have the same effect on others too. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

Intrinsic or Self-Motivation

Fundamentally, all motivation comes from within. So the most common concepts involve self, internal, or intrinsic motivation. All of these terms are used interchangeably to describe the same forces that come from within a person. While it is certainly recognized that external factors can influence behavior too, in this area, external factors play a secondary role. For external forces to be effective in motivating someone, they must be in harmony with one of their intrinsic factors too. In fact, several theorists such as Combs (1982), or Purkey & Stanley (1991), maintain there is only a single kind of intrinsic motivation. This is described as engaging in activities that enhance or maintain a person's self-image or concept of oneself.
leadership and motivation
Other theorists such as Malone and Lepper (1987) define self motivation in broader and perhaps more useful terms. Malone and Lepper believe this is simply what people will do without external influence. Said another way, intrinsically-motivating activities are those in which people will partake in for no reward other than the enjoyment these activities bring them. Malone and Lepper have integrated a large amount of research into a summary of seven ways the leadership of organizations can design environments that are self motivating.


Individuals are motivated when they are working towards personally meaningful goals. Attainment of those goals must require activity that is increasingly difficult, but attainable. In other words, people like to be challenged, but they must feel their goals are achievable to stay motivated. This can be accomplished by:
  • Establishing goals that are personally meaningful
  • Making those goals possible
  • Providing feedback on performance
  • Aligning goals with the individual's self esteem


This concept talks about providing something in the individual's environment that arouses their curiosity. This can be accomplished by presenting the individual with something that connects their present knowledge or skills with a more desirable level - if the person were to engage in a certain activity. To motivate someone through curiosity, the environment must stimulate their interest to learn more.


Most people like to feel they are in control of their destiny. They want to feel in control of what happens to them. To stay motivated, individuals must understand the cause and effect relationship between an action they will take and the result. Leaders can use this information in the following ways:
  • Making the cause and effect relationship clear by establishing a goal and its reward.
  • Allowing individuals to believe the work they do makes a difference.
  • Allowing individuals to choose what they want to learn, and how to go about learning it.


Another intrinsically motivating factor is fantasy. That is, individuals can use mental images of things and / or situations that are not actually present to motivate themselves. It's possible to foster this in others by helping individuals imagine themselves in situations believed to be motivating. For example, if someone is highly inspired by the thought of being in control, then talk to them about a future point in time when they might be in charge of a large and important business operation.


Individuals can also be motivated by competition. That's because individuals gain a certain amount of satisfaction by comparing their performance to that of others. This type of competition can occur naturally as well as artificially. When using competition to foster motivation, keep in mind the following:
  • Competition is more appealing to some than others.
  • Losing in a competition de-motivates more than winning motivates.
  • Competitive spirits can sometimes reduce the likelihood of a coworker being helpful to competitors.


Cooperating with others can be very motivating. Most individuals feel quite satisfied when helping others achieve their goals. As was the case with competition, this can occur naturally or artificially. When using cooperation, keep in mind:
  • Cooperation is more important to some individuals than others.
  • Cooperation is a valuable skill that can be used in many different situations.
  • Interpersonal skills are important for cooperation.


Finally, individuals are oftentimes motivated through recognition. When their accomplishments are recognized by others, they feel encouraged. It's important for a leader to make sure that recognition is distinguished from competition. With recognition it's important to avoid comparing one worker's achievements to those of others, as might occur with a competition.

Extrinsic or External Motivation

As previously mentioned, extrinsic or external motivation is the term used to describe outside factors that stimulate someone's internal drive. The concept of externally motivating someone is not at odds with the fact this drive comes from within. The point here is that it is possible to provide others with situations, or an external environment, that fosters this feeling.

Employee Motivation

Some of the most effective ways for managers and leaders to motivate their staff includes recognition, providing positive performance feedback, and by challenging employees to learn new things. New managers often make the mistake of introducing de-motivating factors into the workplace such as punishment for mistakes, or frequent criticisms. When followers feel they are being supported, and they have the ability to remain in control of their workplace, they stay motivated. Leaders can foster this feeling by allowing employees to take on added responsibility and accountability for making decisions. It's important to keep in mind that motivation is individual, and the degree of success achieved through one single strategy will not be the most effective way to move all employees. The most effective way to determine what triggers this feeling in others is through carefully planned trial and error.

Figuring Out What Motivates Others

That being said, this article is going to finish up with some tips on how to determine what motivates others:
  • Talk to employees about what they value. This will provide insights into which of the seven factors mentioned above might be high on their list.
  • Test a factor on an employee. For example, if it seems that recognition might be effective, then try using that factor.
  • Check in with employees about their feelings. It's always a good idea to get feedback from employees. Make sure their reaction to each factor is what's desired.
  • Be on the lookout for signs of de-motivation. It's important to make sure something isn't being introduced into the work environment that is being counter-productive to the goal.

About the Author - Motivation Theory and Leadership

Moneyzine Editor

Moneyzine Editor