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Eleanor Chin, MAPP '08, is a life and executive coach. Founder and President of Clarity Partners Coaching and Consulting, she works with institutional and individual clients to support them as they navigate change, create inclusive and dynamic systems, and leverage strategic strengths for growth, learning and competitive advantage. Full bio.

Eleanor's past articles are here.

The $10,000,000 question that leaders ask most is “How can we motivate people?” Let’s reframe the question to reflect what can be done for others, “How can we create an environment that enables people to motivate themselves?

A client of mine has an interesting work dilemma. This client—we’ll call him Sam—has a great rapport with his boss, Jason. Jason is a prolific idea person who supports Sam by assigning him new projects on a regular basis. So what’s Sam’s problem? None of the ideas interest him. Fever Thermometer Although he works on them dutifully, he feels disloyal for not appreciating them. He feels like he’s being a good soldier, but not much else. Sam’s complaint is that he’s uninspired and finds himself watching the clock so he can go home. He knows he could be doing better work. Sam has the performance equivalent of a low-grade fever—not sick enough for medication, but not well enough to sprint.

While Sam has many of the ingredients to feel fulfilled in his job, he is lacking self-motivation, the same quality I’ve described in my past three columns on autonomy-supportive parenting (1, 2, 3). In my professional life, I often work with executives and businesses to fine tune their work culture. Autonomy support is a critical tool for leaders to instill self-motivation in the workplace, just as it is for parents to instill self-determination in children.

Brain gears Now let’s focus on intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation, doing work for its own sake is more sustainable, leads to greater job satisfaction, more engagement and even better, greater levels of physical and mental health than extrinsic motivation based on tangible rewards initiated by others. Our natural drive for autonomy leads to intrinsic motivation. The good news is that autonomy develops within us from childhood, like the ability to walk on our own, unless stifled.

What Factors Enhance Motivation?

Motivation Building Blocks

Motivation Building Blocks

Choice and experiences of competence are external factors that enhance feelings of autonomy. If Jason wants Sam to go beyond “meets expectations” to reach heights that Jason himself has not imagined, he needs to balance the necessary drudgery and externally controlled aspects, like deadlines and budgets, with some autonomous aspects that give Sam choice.Jason can start with these steps:

  1. Involve Sam in brainstorming early in the idea stage
  2. Help Sam discover something that he finds exciting about the project
  3. Clarify the goals and leave the means of accomplishing them up to Sam
  4. Create landmarks together so that Sam can feel a sense of accomplishment, success, and competence along the way

Now let’s talk about external rewards. What do you think might work better—positive feedback or a bonus? Okay, it’s a trick question. Based on extensive analysis of hundreds of studies on external rewards, renowned motivation researcher Edward Deci and colleagues found that positive feedback is more motivating–provided it is specific, given within a conversation (rather than on the fly), and based on describing and uncovering the behavior that produced the success. This type of focused positive attention from Jason encourages a sense of competence and learning, helping Sam see how his efforts contributed to successful outcomes.

What Factors Tend to Demotivate?

Negative feedback can diminish both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation at work, according to motivation researchers Gagne and Deci. This suggests that the perennial stand-by for employee development, the performance evaluation, needs to include healthy doses of positive feedback surrounding any discussion of “challenges.” Talking about challenges is a good opportunity to invite the employee’s input on overcoming them. Peak-end theory also suggests that it’s best to end meetings on a positive note. I often suggest the “sandwich” method to my clients—start and end the conversation with genuinely positive feedback.

Floating MoneySo what about money as a motivator? In the case of bonuses, it depends. Deci found that bonuses given on a contingency basis—for example, for completing a task or reaching a specific goal—can actually demotivate, unless they are unexpected and/or accompanied by loads of peer support. We’re not saying here that decent salaries and monetary bonuses aren’t welcome or appreciated. It’s just that the positive feelings they cause are short-lived.

Discontent about money can also be a red herring in the workplace. Often, when intrinsic motivation and job satisfaction are missing, employees will focus on compensation and other tangible replacements. But why make it an either/or question? Competitive wages and bonuses can either motivate or demotivate. In tight financial times, why not use the science of motivation to get the most value from those dollars?

What is Autonomy Supportive Leadership?

In summary, autonomy-supported leaders create the environment that fosters choice, giving people opportunities for success and for developing feelings of competence. According to science, self-motivation thrives in the medium of choice.

Keys to SuccessHow do we build choice into jobs? Helping employees recraft their jobs around reaching specified goals by exercising their strengths, passions and skills is likely to result in more engagement and a better outcome for everyone. Employees are more energized when their actions emanate from choice rather than external control. The vitality that comes from caring about the work itself and relationships with colleagues can be, as they say, priceless.



Berg, J., Dutton, J. & Wrzesniewski, A. (2008). Job Crafting Exercise.

Deci, E.L. & Flaste, R. (1995). Why we do what we do: Understanding self-motivation. New York: Penguin Books.

Deci, E.L. & Ryan, R. (2008). Self-determination theory: A macrotheory of human motivation, development and health. Canadian Psychology, 49 (3), 182-185. (For personal use).

Deci. E. L.& Ryan, R. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development and well-being, American Psychologist. (For personal use).

Gagné, M. & Deci, E. (2005). Self-determination theory and work motivation. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 26, 331-362. (For personal use).

Patall, E.A., Cooper, H., Robinsons, J. C. (2008). The Effects of choice on intrinsic motivation and related outcomes: A meta-analysis of research outcomes. Psychological Bulletin. 134 (2), 270-300.

Thomas, K. W. (2002). Intrinsic Motivation at Work: Building Energy and Commitment. San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

A wide array of publications on Self-Determination Theory.

Images: Use of all photos except the Self-Motivation Building Blocks was purchased from IStockPhoto.

Brain Gears
Dollars Fly Concept
Keys to Success

The Self-Motivation Building Blocks image is used by permission from Eleanor Chin.


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Motivation At Work 4 April 2009 - 10:54 am

Motivation at work: You have many good resolutions mentioned in your article. Getting the workers involved in group discussions sharing ideas between themselves on how this can be established. They feel a part of the solution so they try harder at their performance. Giving them more positive feelings about themselves. http:determined2.com working on goals/resolutions can also help them to get self motivated.

Christine Duvivier 4 April 2009 - 9:33 pm

Hi Eleanor, thanks for writing about intrinsic motivation and self-motivation. Your article gives great advice and clear explanations for managers — I will share it with business leaders.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that we are passionate about the same topics: my article this week will also focus on intrinsic and self-motivation — but in teens.

All the best,

Christine Duvivier

Eleanor Chin 4 April 2009 - 11:25 pm

Thanks, Christine for your support. I think we both come at these interest from our parenting roles, as well as our business roles. These are important topics for which the need and opportunities are abundant and as always, I can’t wait to read what you have to say–especially as a parent.


Jeff Dustin 5 April 2009 - 8:08 am

How well does Self-Determination Theory (SDT) move from general principles to specific applications?

You are a coach, I think you said. Are you stating that you think if we could control the external environment for most typically developing clients you could increase their intrinsic motivation? Intrinsic motivation is sounding less internal than I originally thought.

How much data is there (are there?) with respect to actual applied SDT? What role does personality play in changing the effectiveness, whether increasing or decreasing, of SDT?

Behavior has been studied extensively over many decades. What role does behaviorism play in understanding SDT or other motivational models you use?

Anyone can feel free to comment on all or none of these inquiries.

Thank you,

Kathryn Britton 5 April 2009 - 8:47 am


Self-determination theory has been studied in a variety of environments, and one of the things I like about it is that the publications are easily available to anybody — see http://www.psych.rochester.edu/SDT/publications/index.html to explore the range of topics and to get the papers if you are interested.

I see SDT as eminently applicable because it give us ways to look at motivational states and figure out whether they are “good enough” for the purpose at hand and if not, what are the levers for effecting change.

That said, I’ll leave it to Eleanor and others to address the rest of your questions.

Good to have you back with us!

Senia Maymin 5 April 2009 - 2:57 pm


It’s so interesting – it sounds like Sam wants to use more creativity, and Jason doesn’t think Sam has it in him. Of course, hard to know without knowing how Sam views the world, but it popped into my head. You’re the perfect person to start off a month on motivation optional theme!

Jeff, I second Kathryn – great to have you back!

Eleanor, providing the conditions for motivation to grow. Great angle!


Scott 6 April 2009 - 6:55 am

Love the article and I’m sending it out to the leaders I know and who need to read this. Perhaps the key factor is time. These leaders complain that they don’t have the time to identify strengths, match the strengths to the job, find something the person can be excited about and do it for all of their employees. Perhaps you have some suggestions on how to expedite the process. One idea is already in your article. The Corporate Leadership Council found that informal feedback (Deci suggests it occurs within a conversation) is a more powerful motivator than money or a formal performance review. Similar to Deci, we suggest that the leader help identify the “success factors” when someone has accomplished something good. That helps gain predictable, repeatable success. We have to emphasize that this does not take as long as they think and after we have them role play it, they understand the speed and power of identifying success factors.
I’d love to read some more suggestions about using this powerful motivational tool in an expedited way. Thanks for the article.

Eleanor Chin 6 April 2009 - 1:27 pm

Hi Jeff,
Your questions are big ones and get to the heart of the complexities of applying any theory such as SDT. Actually lots of data exists on applying SDT and you will find much of it in the articles in my reference list and Kathryn’s link. In particular, the articles by Deci and/or Ryan cite their research where they have been applying SDT theory for over 30 years.
To answer your question: “Are you stating that you think if we could control the external environment for most typically developing clients you could increase their intrinsic motivation?” What I find most useful about understanding SDT Theory is that it places intrinsic and extrinsic motivation along a continuum that acknowledges that intrinsic motivation can indeed be adopted from “extrinsic” sources. The success of this “adoption” depends on how aligned the extrinsic goal is to the person’s values and goals. Thus the continuum ranges from “adopted, but not really owned” to truly aligned and “integrated.” My next article will outline this continuum in more detail.
In this article I have focused on two of the psychological needs which enhance motivation—-autonomy/choice, and opportunities for competence—-and how to increase these in the workplace. The realities of both parenting and the workplace is that both leaders and parents can enhance or suppress both of these factors affecting motivation. So yes, I think that SDT offers us pathways to inhibit or increase intrinsic motivation for ourselves and others. To look at it from a different angle, you may recall Martin Seligman cites circumstances and volition as two of the key drivers of life satisfaction.
As for personality and behaviorism, these are very interesting questions, which others may be more qualified than I to answer, but I know that Carol Dweck and many others have done a bit of research in these areas.
This is such a rich topic, we could go on and on. Ask Kathryn, my original article had to be chopped into two! I’d be happy to correspond more with you directly via email. Thanks for raising these great questions! Eleanor

Helen Abel 10 April 2009 - 3:56 pm

Hi Eleanor,

I really enjoyed your article. I am a life performance coach at the Life Performance Coaching Center in San Francisco. I was interested in the reframing of the question “How can we motivate people?” to “How can we create an environment that enables people to motivate themselves?”

At our coaching center we run coaching groups that focus on building an environment where people in the group can get help. The focus is on building the group.

People in this weekly group find it is a way of building the support they need in their environment to move forward and I would say become more motivated.

So it does seem like supporting the individual to build his or her environment is part of that continuum between internal and external motivation?

Anyway interesting dialogue.

Eleanor Chin 7 May 2009 - 4:21 pm

Hi Scott, Although I am terribly late in replying, I wanted to say that I really appreciate your perspectives as a business leader/consultant on applying self-motivation theories in the workplace, as I believe they can help businesses with some core employee engagement issues. You also asked for “some more suggestions about using this powerful motivational tool in an expedited way” and I wanted to offer ACR (Reis & Gable, 2003) and process praise (Kamins & Dweck, 1999)as very powerful and quick, in-the-moment tools to offer managers (and everyone!) to help build relationships and motivation. Email me and I can send you the articles.

Eleanor Chin 7 May 2009 - 4:25 pm

Thanks, Helen. It’s fascinating to hear other perspectives on how self-motivation can be generated in many situations, like small groups. What do you think is the optimum balance between support and autonomy in the groups that you run?


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