Smell the Roses: 4 Ways to Enhance Intrinsic Motivation

Peggy Fleming

As a high school student, WNBA star Elena Delle Donne set the national high school record hitting 80 straight free throws as a sophomore but three years of recruiting battles drained her of her passion for playing. When she arrived at the University of Connecticut for her freshman year, she quickly realized how much she missed her family in Delaware. “I blamed basketball for taking me away from home,” she said in 2009. “I hated the sport. Every time I played basketball I felt sick to my stomach. I didn’t realize that feeling was having to leave my family – having to leave my sister who can’t even communicate with me when I’m gone.” Delle Donne is extremely close with her older sister, Lizzie, who is blind, deaf and has cerebral palsy. After two days at UConn she returned home, enrolled at the University of Delaware where she played volleyball and was reminded that playing sports was fun.

Eventually, with a growing urge to play again, Delle Donne texted the Delaware basketball coach and asked if she could come to the gym and shoot while the gym was empty. “It was like I was a little kid again,” she said. “Going in the backyard and shooting. I got that feeling when I was younger and just loved the game for the game.” After watching a few of Delaware’s games and a few private shooting sessions, she knew she wanted to play again and told the coach of her interest in pursuing basketball at Delaware.

In 2011, Delle Donne was selected for the USA Basketball Team for the World University Games in China and led the team to a gold medal with a perfect 6–0 record. In 2013, she was selected by the Chicago Sky and was rewarded with the 2013 Rookie of the Year award.

Today, she is one of the top players in the WNBA.

Athletes find motivation in a number of different ways but the most successful athletes are self-motivated and maintain a high level of motivation through setbacks, failure, injury, and a punishing work schedule. But it’s not just the level but also the type of motivation that counts. Delle Donne almost quit basketball altogether but she realized how important her connection with her family was. That was her intrinsic motivation and, once she tapped into it and remembered how as a kid she loved the game for the game, she was able to return to basketball and play at the highest level.

Intrinsic motivation refers to performing an activity just for the enjoyment of performing without considering receiving anything for taking part. Intrinsic motivation is associated with positive results including enhanced performance, which means that high performance is usually achieved by focusing on the pride, satisfaction and enjoyment you get from participating. But how do you enhance intrinsic motivation to increase your chance of long-term positive results for yourself and your team and decrease burnout and turnover? In general, if you want to be highly intrinsically motivated or lead others to be highly intrinsically motivated, the following four points are key:

Build social relationships: Successful athletes have a supportive team that can include their families, coaches, physiotherapists, physiologists, sport scientists, and psychologists. Developing good relationships with family and friends who care about you is important for intrinsic motivation and accepting help from them can also strengthen resilience. Getting to know and understand your co-workers or teammates as people usually strengthens bonds between you and makes your job more enjoyable, and intrinsically more motivating.

Set short-term and long-term goals: Long-term goals are important as they tell you where you are going. Short-term goals show you your progress towards meeting your long-term goals. Use short-term goals to achieve long-term plans. By evaluating your short-term achievements, you can adjust your goal either upwards or downwards, depending on the situation. Read this article for more information on effective goal-setting.

Positive feedback: Some leaders have a primarily negative style, focusing on criticism and negative feedback. This may be effective in the short-term, but it can lead to burnout, lowered self-esteem, poor motivation, and reduced performance long-term. People that receive positive feedback, as long as it is related to performance, are more likely to enjoy their jobs, work harder at them, develop strong self-esteem and pride, and achieve long-term performance improvement.

Seek or provide input: In order for you to develop a strong sense of intrinsic motivation, you must believe you have autonomy and that you are in control of your actions and your destiny. As a leader, you should seek input from your employees, where appropriate, when making decisions. This does not mean you must accept every suggestion, but it provides an opportunity for input that keeps people engaged, motivated, and energized. As a leader, foster a culture of agency, and create a supportive environment for your whole team in order to increase their self-determination.

Enhancing intrinsic motivation will help you gain long-term positive results including enhanced performance for yourself and your team and decrease your chances of burnout and employee turnover. Often, when starting your career, you may participate for more intrinsic reasons. It is critical for you to stay in touch with fun, personal satisfaction, and personal development as the number of potential external rewards increases. Being high in intrinsic motivation helps you through difficult patches in your career and keeps the emphasis on enjoyment. Take a little time today to list your intrinsic motives and keep connected with them.