Workforce Health + Benefits

Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Rewards to Improve Employee Engagement

What makes your employees tick and push toward greatness? This is, of course, not an easy question to answer.

Your workforce boasts incredible diversity and is multidimensional beyond measure. Unearthing and implementing that one secret element that will excite and motivate your employees to get to work and perform to their potential can often feel like magic you don’t have the spell or wand for.

The key to success is to start defining your focus. What are you trying to achieve? Are you looking to boost employee engagement at work or are you looking to boost employee engagement in something specific, like personal health and well-being?

Your tactics to motivate employees will be different depending on your direction. But before we get into the tactics of motivation, let’s first address the role your culture plays in strengthening or weakening your efforts.

Culture and Motivation in the Workplace

Let’s quickly circle back to our initial question: What makes your employees push toward greatness? 

Or, along the same lines but in more simplistic terms, why do your employees work for your company?

It’s too easy to say money; we know money isn’t the main reason they spend most of their waking hours furthering the organization.

Many surveys and studies have strived to understand why people work. Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan identified six reasons: play, purpose, potential, emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia.

How Can Organizations Influence Workplace Motivation?

The first three of Deci and Ryan’s reasons are drivers. They’re crucial when motivating your workforce to do anything.

Employees want to find meaning in the work they do and want to see opportunities for personal and professional growth and development. You could almost see these as the first layers of a Maslow’s hierarchy for employee motivation.

By recognizing the desires of your employees and ensuring your culture is hyper-focused on supporting their play, purpose and potential, you can build, influence, and sustain a positive work environment that promotes creativity, respect, productivity, and – above all – continued motivation for greatness. Without this foundation, your strategy for motivating employees is going to vary widely. Let’s take a look at the two primary categories for rewards and recognition within the workplace:

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivators

Extrinsic rewards are usually financial or tangible rewards given to employees, such as pay raises, bonuses, and benefits.

  • They are extrinsic because they are external to completing the work itself and are controlled by people other than the employee.

  • They can be essential in jump-starting initial buy-in or participation from people in the initial stages of readiness to change (pre-contemplation or contemplation).

  • They usually have limited impact over time if they are not increased.

  • They are a powerful lever to reinforce and drive the behaviors that a culture values most but wouldn’t be the norm without. (e.g. sales commissions, performance bonuses, etc.)  

  • Think of them as a defibrillator to a stopped heart. Their job is to get the heart beating on its own.  

Intrinsic rewards are psychological rewards that employees get from doing meaningful work and performing it well.

  • They are intrinsic because they are internal to the work being done and achieving them largely depends on one’s own effort.

  • They are essential to sustained behavior change.

  • Can be created by allowing employees to do more self-managing and adding value to their work by innovating, problem-solving and improvising.

  • When someone achieves an intrinsic reward, there is a positive emotional reaction.

  • Think of them as a pacemaker for a heart that is already beating. Their job is to keep the heart on-pace and in rhythm.

The Problem With Strategies Based on External Motivation

Extrinsic rewards are still widely used in many organizations for a range of initiatives and performance, but when they’re meant to increase or sustain employee engagement in something like personal well-being, the effects can be short-lived for most people.

Again, the job of the external motivator is to jump-start the “heart” to beat on its own, just like a defibrillator. A stopped heart needs the external jolt from a defibrillator or compressions from CPR to get started again, but you don’t need to keep shocking the heart once it starts beating on its own.

When an extrinsic reward influences someone to engage, the window for sustained engagement is limited if the individual doesn’t find an intrinsic reason to continue engaging. That switch from external to internal motivation is critical.

In environments where the culture isn’t rooted in the list of Deci and Ryan’s drivers, employees tend only to take on extra responsibility or – dare we say it – do what’s right in complex situations if they are going to see an external reward or payoff. Employees may work hard in the short-term to avoid a negative consequence, but this can decrease engagement and job satisfaction over time, leading to burnout and turnover.

In conclusion, extrinsic rewards and motivators can be used effectively to engage employees in a short-term situation to push them towards a goal. If the intrinsic motivation to meet new goals or the same goals over time isn’t developed or does not exist in the absence of a once-present extrinsic reward, employee engagement (in personal wellness especially) can be negatively impacted in the long term.

Ways to Reward Your Team Intrinsically

You want a highly-committed, motivated workforce – as every HR professional, manager, business owner and CEO does.

You know that when your employees are healthy and engaged, your business performance is better, your client base or customer satisfaction scores increase, and, eventually, your organization’s revenues and profits grow.

While we’ll never tell you that keeping employees engaged and committed to your initiatives is easy – especially in today’s distracted workplace – you can certainly turn things around, pick up the momentum, and sustain a healthy, flourishing, engaged culture by tapping into your population’s intrinsic motivators.

You can establish, promote and foster intrinsic rewards through a multitude of ways:

1. Give employees more autonomy.

Employees crave control and allowing them to take responsibility for their job and tasks (and ditching a micromanagement approach) will empower employees to take ownership and pride in their work and see to it that projects are completed with excellence.

How this applies to wellness: Wellness committees are a perfect place for this to happen. Give your committee actual control over decisions (instead of just the ability to provide input) for things like programming, external events, challenges and even spending the budget.

2. Empower your employees to be self-fulfilled and purpose-driven.

Employees want to make a difference. Developing an authentic culture of purpose that your employees rally around and believe in is vital. A great first step is hiring motivated, purpose-driven individuals.

But this can also be achieved with your current team by encouraging employees to find meaning in the work they do and showing them the good that came of their specific efforts and accomplishments.

How this applies to wellness: Choose personalized interventions and other activities that meet your employees at any point on their wellness journey. By allowing employees to learn the skills to live a healthier lifestyle and showing them that their goals are within reach, they’re more likely to take steps to improve. 

When employees can see how their role, or even their personal health, make a difference in the company and how the company then makes a difference in the world, they’ll be more invested and motivated all the way around.

3. Promote social interaction.

Employees want to connect with their colleagues, especially those on other teams or in different departments. By encouraging employees to hang out or conduct business in areas other than their desks, and by allowing them to take a break and get out of the office to go do something fun together, they can connect, interact, care, share, be recognized, seek to understand others and so on.

How this applies to wellness: Create opportunities for employees to learn and practice healthy behaviors together. Host a breakfast potluck with healthy recipes, offer to pay for a fitness class for coworkers who attend the class together, or create a walking group at lunch. Employee lifestyle choices do impact and influence the choices of their coworkers, so by providing them with ideas and motivation to live healthier together, they’ll be more likely to do so in their daily life.

4. Provide opportunities for advancement.

Employees want to progress and achieve. Human beings – not just employees – do more and produce better work when they are making progress on something they care about. So, when trying to motivate employees, give them a clear career path and let them stretch themselves and demonstrate their skill set.

Through it all, be sure to recognize their efforts and achievements.

5. Investing in employees’ learning, development and well-being.

Employees want to be appreciated and valued for the hard-working individuals that they are – on and off the clock.

Continuing education courses, professional development programs, and customized employee wellness programs are all valuable pieces to the employee engagement puzzle.

To get the best from employees, your workplace culture and intrinsic rewarding system must concurrently focus on company goals and objectives and employees’ total quality of life – from work/life balance, to physical and mental health, to social and financial well-being.

When employees feel like their employer values them as professionals and individuals, they are more likely to repay this investment through top performances, excellent work, and genuine engagement that will advance the culture and organization.

Reap the Benefits of Higher Employee Engagement & a Healthier Workforce

When the focus is on your employees’ well-being first and foremost, intrinsic motivators and rewards begin to take care of themselves.

Your organization can influence workplace motivation by holistically investing in your workforce.

At Bravo, we know that without our health and well-being, we don’t have much.

When an employee doesn’t feel well, is constantly dealing with chronic pain or illness, is suffering in silence with a mental health issue, or is contending with stress and anxiety on a daily basis, their work in the company is never top of mind.

They may do what they need to in order to maintain their job, but prospering is not an option at the moment. Their health and wellness issues trump everything, and when some (if not most) employees are working just to keep their heads above water, your culture and company will pay the price in the long run.

Let’s talk about how a wellness solution for your company can enhance employee engagement and culture.

Get to know Bravo’s configurable employee wellness programs that evolve to meet your population’s needs over time.

Our programs will work to inspire your employees to achieve their personal best and protect the benefit plans you’ve worked so hard to build.

Learn more about the tools and incentives you can use to drive year-round participation and engagement.


Learn how to control rising healthcare costs with a sustainable wellness program. Download our 8 Steps to ROI in Wellness Guide to find out how your organization can control rising healthcare costs, inspire personal improvement to drive down health risks, and attract and retain top talent.

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