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Don’t overlook the intangibles: Intrinsic, extrinsic motivation

J.E. Johnson and G.J. Lascano Published on 06 February 2014

“My wife tells me I don’t compliment [my employees] like I should, or pat guys on the back. I sit and listen and talk and joke with the guys, but I’m usually pretty serious and feel like we’re always behind. I have been trying to do more of that ‘good job’ thing, but it’s just not my nature. I should, but I don’t.”

This may sound far removed from how your dairy operates, or it may be right on target. Either way, understanding just what is implied in the quote above is critical. What we’re talking about is motivating employees.



To be motivated is to be inspired to act or “to be moved to do something,” and motivation is one of the key processes by which we drive performance. Providing motivation or helping to create it is how we encourage our employees to work harder, longer and hopefully smarter.

Generally speaking, there are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation involves using external, usually tangible rewards to drive performance, most frequently including things like pay, bonuses, raises and days off; in other words, things that cost money.

Intrinsic motivation or intangible rewards, on the other hand, involves driving performance most frequently by appealing to something inside a person, offering praise, encouragement or work which is inherently interesting or engaging.

Extrinsic motivation compared to intrinsic motivation

For example, praising an employee who gives extra effort or asking employees for suggestions that might be incorporated to help make work more interesting. Intrinsic motivation is about providing support so that people want to be better employees because it’s satisfying, not because it pays more, which incidentally, often means intrinsic motivation costs very little.


The nature of work on dairies is such that many of the day-to-day tasks which require completion are repetitive and straightforward. There may not be a great deal of intrinsic motivation inherent in these tasks, and there is often is a strict protocol in place to ensure high-quality outputs. With little room for deviation and a need to ensure consistency, extrinsic rewards certainly have their place.

A key to remember is that extrinsic outputs come in two types, and research suggests this distinction is not trivial. Punishment for a mistake is an example of the first type of extrinsic output, and employees will be motivated to avoid punishment.

Clearly identifying the impact work has on the health and well-being of employees, their families and their communities is an example of the second type of extrinsic output. This is extrinsic output because the motivation to do well is not because the work is inherently interesting but because doing a good job is good for your health in the long run.

The reason why the second type of extrinsic output is likely more motivating than the first is because of the role of choice. It may not really feel like a choice to avoid punishment (it’s just something you have to do), whereas it feels like you’re making a choice every day to contribute to the health of your children and the children of your neighbors.

Although extrinsic outputs like pay and consequences are necessary and important, as mentioned previously, they are not the only way to motivate employees. Intrinsic motivation is a very well-researched but often overlooked tool on applied settings.

This may be because for some it feels unnatural or contrived, or it may simply be that many of us haven’t had much experience with it.


Like anything else, offering intrinsic, intangible outputs (offering praise and “attaboys”) gets easier and more authentic with practice. The reason praise works is because it elicits a feeling of competency; it makes us feel like we’re good at something, which is considered one of our basic physiological needs.

When we feel our competency is recognized, our satisfaction with the work increases and motivation is increased because we want to experience that feeling again.

However, in order to fully realize the benefits of intrinsic motivation, one not only needs to feel competent but also in control of the outcome of the work they are doing. Once again, people need to feel like they have a choice and have the autonomy to make the decision they think best.

When we asked a group of dairy owners about how they motivate their employees, all described incorporating extrinsic motivation, but only about half mentioned use of intrinsic motivation and intangible rewards.

At the same time, as seen in the quote at the start of this article, most of those who did not currently incorporate much intrinsic motivation thought they should.

Practical application
So how exactly does one take advantage of the (usually) free benefits of incorporating intrinsic motivation and intangible rewards?

1. Alignment : Be sure your intrinsic and extrinsic rewards are aligned. If you consistently offer praise for a particular behavior, be sure those behaviors are included when you consider raises, bonuses or promotions. Employees should be able to see that what you say translates into what you do.

Moreover, keeping a written record of these interactions will help you when the time comes for annual performance evaluations. You’ll be able to offer specific examples of behaviors that lead to administrative outcomes like a particular percentage raise.

Consider keeping a small notepad in your pocket so you can jot down notes in real-time instead of trying to remember things later.

2. Be specific: Although general praise – “Great job today!” – may be a step in the right direction, it’s also easier to discount (“He doesn’t mean me” or “I did the same thing today as I do every day.”). Instead, focus on a specific person and behavior: “Chris, I was really impressed with how you handled that lame cow today. You were able to calm her down and avoid further injury.”

3. Timing: Like any feedback, when you offer praise matters. Rather than waiting for the end of the day and trying to remember everything that happened, be on the lookout for employees who are doing things right, and say it when you see it.

4. Create a culture: Encourage your herd manager and others to consider intrinsic motivation as well. You can also ask employees for ways to recognize strong performance. Odds are that they know you are in a crunch and the economy is tough, and they may be able to come up with some creative solutions like an employee recognition board or contributions to the community in their names.

Small monetary rewards can sometimes be just as motivating as larger ones, particularly if they are not necessarily expected – think employee of the month.

5. Look for opportunities: Although there may be limited opportunities for creativity in how the work is done, be sure your employees know that you are open to suggestions. When someone does come up with a good suggestion, make sure to reward it – intrinsically or extrinsically.

At the end of the day, your ability to motivate your employees will have a direct impact on the success of your dairy. You’ll need to find the right balance for you and your dairy, and although extrinsic, tangible rewards will be a big part of that equation, don’t overlook those lovely intangibles. PD

J.E. Johnson has a Ph.D. in industrial-organizational psychology from Penn State University and is currently a grant coordinator at Clemson University, South Carolina. G.J. Lascano has a Ph.D. in animal science with specialization in dairy ruminant nutrition from Penn State University and is an assistant professor of ruminant nutrition at Clemson University.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Johanna Johnson

J.E. Johnson
Grants Coordinator
Clemson University