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Can You Make Someone More Internally Motivated?

Dr. J. Stuart Ablon

September 3, 2018

Wish your teenager would do his homework or his chores just because it was important to him instead of because you bribed him to do it? Wish people on your sales team would strive for higher numbers not just when an incentive trip is dangled in front of their noses but just because they want to be good at their job?

Parents, teachers, managers, and CEOs alike all search for the Holy Grail of performance: internal motivation. How do you internally motivate someone, and is asking that very question antithetical to the goal itself? Can you actually help someone to be more internally driven?

Many people opine about the keys to intrinsic (as opposed to extrinsic or external) motivation, but let’s use empirical research here to set the record straight. There is, in fact, an entire field of research in this area. What do the data say? No, you can’t make someone internally motivated. However, it turns out that it is quite possible to help foster sustained intrinsic drive in others. The key lies in three very basic psychological needs that we humans must have satisfied if we are going to be internally driven to pursue a goal. These three basic and essential needs are:

  1. Mastery
  2. Autonomy
  3. Connection

Self-determination theory flows from research in this area and has shown that we must feel (1) reasonably good at something (i.e., competent), (2) that we have some independence, and (3) connected to those around us if we are going to internally motivated to pursue any particular goal in a sustained way. Think about your own job. If you like your job and feel internally motivated to go to work, it is probably because you feel good at your job, feel like you have some autonomy, and feel connected to your colleagues and others with whom you work. However, if you don’t particularly like your job and often feel unmotivated, it is likely because you don’t feel particularly good at it, you feel told what to do or controlled, and you feel and disconnected from those around you.

In my previous blog, I described the dangers of focusing on extrinsic motivators like rewards. One of those dangers is a marked decrease in intrinsic (internal) drive. There is a negative correlation between the two. This makes sense when you realize that using a carrot and stick approach doesn’t build skills, autonomy, or connection. In fact, when you try to incentivize people to perform, you are taking away their autonomy by attempting to control or manipulate their behavior. So instead of bribing someone, if we want to foster sustained, internal drive we need to think about how to help people feel more independent, more connected and better at the task or job at hand. But how exactly do we do that? Easier said than done for sure.

However, we’ve made some basic observations while teaching people our Collaborative Problem Solving approach for over 20 years now. When an individual is having a hard time meeting expectations, it’s important to not turn, as many of us do, to offering incentives or threatening consequences. Those only work for the short term because the only focus on increasing external motivation. If you really want long term change, you’ll need to invite your child, student, employee (or yes, even friend, partner or relative) to solve problems together with you, to foster connection and autonomy while also helping them practice and build their skills – skills that lead to them becoming and feeling more competent in the future. In fact, we actually see the ingredients of our Collaborative Problem Solving process as a sort of a roadmap for meeting these three basic psychological needs that lead to sustained intrinsic drive. Start by understanding and valuing their perspective on a problem before sharing yours. Then invite them to brainstorm solutions together with you, giving them first chance to suggest an idea.

So, if you want your child to get her homework done, don’t reward her with more Fortnite time whenever she actually completes it. That will just make her more motivated to play Fortnite! Instead, ask her what gets in the way of getting the homework done. Get her perspective on it. Maybe it’s a focus issue, a fatigue issue after school, maybe she often doesn’t know where to start without the teacher’s help. Whatever it is, assume she’s got a good concern and find out why before you share why the homework is important in your mind. Finish by inviting her to try to come up with solutions to the homework problem. If she’s co-author of some ideas to try, she will be much more invested in the solutions. She will also feel much more competent, independent, and connected to you while doing so.

Same deal with your colleagues at work. Start by finding out why, directly from them, that they aren’t jazzed about selling your new product. Express the obvious concern you have about sales numbers and invite them to the problem-solving table. All of a sudden, they are a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. And your team members will feel … you guessed it, more competent, independent, and connected – the recipe for fostering internal drive. If you use this process repeatedly, you are bound to see increases in internal drive—and long-term change. The data don’t lie.

This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.


Pink, D.H. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. New York: Riverbed Books.

Ablon, J.S. (2018) Changeable: How Collaborative Problem Solving Changes Lives at Home, at School, and at Work. New York: Penguin Random House.

Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000) Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions, Contemporary Educational Psychology 25.

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