HR Mavericks

Eddy’s HR Mavericks Encyclopedia

Extrinsic Motivation
How do we motivate employees? This question has been asked by many employers time and time again. The answer lies in understanding how employees are extrinsically motivated.

What Is Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation refers to behaviors exhibited by an individual driven by external stimuli and incentives. It is a psychological phenomenon that is often referred to as the reward system. Extrinsic motivation is a manifestation of operant conditioning, also called instrumental conditioning, which refers to a process by which individuals learn from consequences. Through this process, the consequence of a choice influences the probability of the same choice occurring again. In other words, the type and severity of the consequence (positive or negative) influences individuals to make or avoid making the same choice in the future that resulted in the corresponding consequence. For example, if an individual makes a decision and is rewarded for their choice, then they are more likely to make that same choice in the future.

Extrinsic Motivation vs. Intrinsic Motivation

There are two types of motivation in the workplace, extrinsic and intrinsic. While extrinsic motivation refers to external stimuli and incentives that influence decisions, intrinsic motivation is defined by internal factors that influence an individual, such as an individual’s personal goals or values. Examples of intrinsic motivation include personal satisfaction, a desire to better oneself and the joy of overcoming challenges.

Why Is Understanding Extrinsic Motivation Important for Employers?

Extrinsic motivation influences behavior. Employees respond to both positive and negative external stimuli and incentives that they encounter. Employers benefit from understanding extrinsic motivation because it impacts employee engagement, predicts future behavior, and contributes to the employee experience. Below are a few areas where extrinsic motivation shows up in the workplace.
  • Impacts employee engagement. When employers reward employees for their engagement, productivity and loyalty to the organization, employees are often more likely to respond to the external positive stimuli by continuing to be engaged, productive and loyal.
  • Predicts future behavior. Employers are better able to plan for the future when they can anticipate how employees will respond to changes in the organization. Understanding how extrinsic motivation works can help employers people-plan for the future.
  • Contributes to the employee experience. Nearly every interaction that an employee has with an organization contributes to their employee experience. If they are faced with negative external stimuli, they likely feel negatively toward the organization. If they are met with positive external stimuli, they will likely respond with positive reactions. Employers have the capability to create positive experiences for their employees to better the employee experience.

Examples of Extrinsic Motivation in the Workplace

There are many examples of extrinsic motivation in the workplace because people are motivated by a variety of external factors. Examples of extrinsic motivation include tangible rewards, such as gifts, and intangible rewards, including praise, autonomy, and compensation.


When people think of extrinsic motivation, they often first consider compensation because it is an essential driving factor of motivation. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, individuals are fundamentally motivated by physiological and safety needs, which they typically get from compensation. Physiological needs include air, water, food, shelter, and clothing while safety needs include personal security, employment, and resources. People are motivated by these external stimuli that provide basic protection.

Tangible Rewards

The most commonly known examples of extrinsic motivation are tangible. Rewards like gifts, free food, extra time off, bonuses, flexible work schedules, and additional benefits serve as examples of extrinsic motivation. When employers reward employees for engaging, positive or loyal behavior, employees are more likely to exhibit the same behavior in the future in hopes of earning the same or a similar reward. On the other hand, employees are extrinsically motivated to avoid future negative consequences. For example, if an employee abuses their privilege to have a flexible work schedule and work from home and the employer removes the opportunity for the employee to work from home because they no longer can trust the individual, then the employee would likely be extrinsically motivated to change their behavior in the future in order to avoid future negative consequences.

Intangible Rewards

Intangible examples of motivation can be difficult to distinguish, whether they are extrinsic or intrinsic rewards. Praise, appreciation, autonomy, and avoidance of future punishments can serve as intangible examples of extrinsic motivation. When praise is given to employees, it motivates them by providing them with a sense of accomplishment. While the sense of accomplishment occurs with the individual, the source of the motivation was provided externally or originated from outside of themselves (from another person). Appreciation works in a similar fashion. Both provide recognition to an individual which feeds their own sense of accomplishment and personal value. Both praise and appreciation fall into Maslow’s category of esteem in the hierarchy of needs. Esteem includes respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, and freedom. Autonomy is another intangible reward example. Employees are often motivated to continue rewarded behaviors when the reward includes more autonomy. Avoidance of future punishments can be another intangible example of extrinsic motivation. Individuals are influenced to make choices that avoid negative consequences. Some consequences are tangible while others are intangible. For example, if an employee is yelled at by their boss for not completing a task on time, they may be extrinsically motivated to avoid being yelled at in the future and alter their actions to accomplish just that.

How to Utilize Extrinsic Motivation in the Workplace

Now that we understand extrinsic motivation, we can utilize it in the field of human resources to obtain a desired outcome, whether it be increasing employee productivity, developing loyalty or improving satisfaction.

Step 1: Identify What Motivation Works

The first step in utilizing extrinsic motivation in the workplace is to identify what employees respond to. It is not worthwhile to utilize external stimuli that employees do not respond to. First, ask yourself, “What has worked in the past?” or “What do my employees have a desire for?” If employees have never expressed a desire for more autonomy in their roles, using an increase in autonomy as a motivator may not have the desired measurable impact.

Step 2: Implement Into the Employee Experience

The second step involves implementing external motivating stimuli into the employee experience. This step takes time to complete because implementing something new often does not have an immediate impact. Additionally, employers should take care when it comes to adding new extrinsic motivators into the employee experience so that employees do not feel manipulated. For example, introducing a new incentive program to motivate employees can be incredibly effective in increasing productivity. However, employees might also feel exploited or manipulated by the new program if not introduced in the right way. To avoid this, be transparent and communicative, and ensure that your company is using the right motivators for the right reasons when introducing new extrinsic motivators in the workplace.

Step 3: Continue the Cycle of Identifying and Implementing

The last step requires a continuation of the cycle. Utilizing extrinsic motivation in the workplace works best when it is adapted to fit employee needs and is kept up with. If employers implement a new motivation and then implement a new one, and then a new one, and then a new one, very few of the motivators will take hold. Employers should carefully consider what they should implement and take the necessary time to follow through and focus on one new motivator at a time.
Raelynn Randall, MHR, MBA

Raelynn Randall, MHR, MBA

Rae has acquired HR experience in team leadership, research, training, recruiting, project management, and mentoring upcoming HR professionals. She is fascinated by workplace culture and the many implications it has on the world of business, especially HR. When possible, she seeks out opportunities to expand her knowledge and give back to her community.
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Frequently asked questions
Other Related Terms
360 Review
9 Box Talent Review
Behaviorally Anchored Rating Scale (BARS)
Employee Disengagement
Employee Engagement
Employee Evaluation
Employee Monitoring
Employee Morale
Employee Productivity
Graphic Rating Scale
Intrinsic Motivation
Motivational Interviewing in the Workplace
Multi-Rater Feedback
Organizational Development (OD)
Performance Improvement Plans
Performance Management
Performance Review
Quiet Firing
Quiet Quitting
SBI Feedback
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