The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

I had the chance to hear Michaela Beals and Josh Calvert present the content of this post at a Results Review to Washington State Governor Jay Inslee along with state agency leaders. I was impressed by the way they connected the State's Employee Engagement Survey results with practical insights into human motivation and an effective human-centered workplace. Thanks to Michaela and Josh for sharing their work here with the community of A Human Workplace. -Renée

Why do you work? What’s your motivation?

Many people work in environments that are dominated by the “carrot and stick” approach of extrinsic motivation: do well and you’ll get a reward; do poorly and you’ll get punished.

But decades of research show that external factors are not the best motivators in today’s workplace. Instead, intrinsic motivation—the kind that comes from within—is much more powerful for knowledge work, creative tasks, and complex problem solving, which is what today’s 21st century workforce is all about.

The RAMP Model of Intrinsic Motivators

On Wednesday, May 30, Results Washington hosted a Results Review that brought together employees, agency leaders, and the Governor to talk about the employee experience of working for the State of Washington.

We were invited to the meeting to share information about the RAMP Model (image below), which identifies four intrinsic motivators that are central to employee engagement and the employee experience more generally:

R = Relationships. The desire to be respected and connected to others.

A = Autonomy. The desire to have freedom and discretion in one’s job.

M = Mastery. The desire to improve skills and develop expertise.

P = Purpose. The desire for meaningful work.  

The individual motivators were informed by decades of research summarized by Daniel Pink in the book, “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.”

We developed the human-centered RAMP model as a framework to interpret the 2017 Statewide Employee Engagement Survey. By mapping relevant survey questions to the components of the RAMP model, we were able to gain a better understanding of how employees experience relationships, autonomy, mastery and purpose in their work.


Relationships are a basic human need. A need that is just as motivating to satisfy as having food, water, and air. We are all intrinsically motivated to have relationships built on respect, trust, and inclusion.

With a majority of our time typically spent with coworkers, it is vital that our workplaces foster healthy relationships.

A majority of state employees said they are treated with dignity and respect by their supervisor, their agency supports diversity, people in their work group are treated fairly, and the work group has a spirit of cooperation and teamwork.

However, a sizable chunk of employees said those same conditions occurred only occasionally or less.

The state must continue to build on workplace relationships. Leadership can do this by encouraging employees to meet, collaborate and learn from one another.


Autonomy is a powerful intrinsic motivator. It speaks to our desire to have freedom and discretion in our work. Many tend to confuse autonomy with “going it alone”. Rather, it is about having a choice within an interdependent framework.

The state had mixed results with employees feeling they can provide input and offer better ways of doing things. However, both areas are seeing continued improvement.

Satisfaction levels with flexibility, technology, physical space, mobility, and general well-being as a result of the work environment offer mixed results as well. Mobility was the lowest rated out the Work Environment questions.

Mobility, having the opportunity to work remotely from home or other locations, is important to autonomy because it gives a person a sense of freedom in where they can get their work done. Demands for mobility will only continue to rise as our workforce demographics shift with new employees.

Leadership can make great strides in fostering employee autonomy by creating workplace cultures that value the employee voice and bridge trust and accountability between employees and managers.


Mastery is the desire to learn new skills and develop expertise.

We all want to get better at doing things. A sense of progress, not just in our work, but also in our capabilities, contributes to our inner drive to succeed.

From the engagement survey, we can see that most employees say they are able to make good use of their skills at work, but the area where we see room to improve is with employees feeling like they have opportunities at work to learn and grow. This is one of the lower-rated questions in the survey, meaning there is plenty of opportunity to improve, and it’s one of the top- two drivers of job satisfaction in our state, meaning improvements are likely to give you a good bang for your buck.

The takeaway is clear: if we want employees to be engaged and to speak positively about the agency, then we must give them challenging work that makes good use of their existing skills and plenty of opportunities to learn and grow.


The last intrinsic motivator is purpose, defined as the desire for meaningful work. Connecting to a cause larger than yourself can unlock the highest level of motivation of all.

Many employees feel a sense of purpose from their agency’s mission. The good news is that we do very well in the area of employees knowing how their work connects to agency goals – this is actually one of the top-three questions in the survey overall.

Where we see an opportunity is in communicating clear information about changes in the agency. Transparency and clear communication, especially during times of change, are extremely important for employees to stay connected to purpose. Unfortunately, this question ranks in the bottom two overall, despite an impressive increase compared to last year.

So what can leaders do to improve employees’ sense of purpose? In general, help them connect to something larger than themselves. Help them connect their work to values and people, with plenty of communication along the way.

In Closing

Within the context of the employee experience, extrinsic motivation leads to compliance—at best.

Only intrinsic motivation leads to engagement.

This is important, not only for our employees, but also for our customers.

If employees work in environments that promote Relationships, Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose, they will do great things for the people of Washington.

RAMP Model of Intrinsic motivators.jpg