The key to achieve the best results

is through motivated employees


Pernille Koch Erichsen

This article was originally published in Danish HR, vol. 2, 2015. The below is a translated version of the article.

- But how do you unlock potential

Have you found all the keys to unlock the potential for motivation in your organisation? If not, keep looking, as employee motivation is a key factor in relation to increasing turnover, efficiency, customer satisfaction, performance, quality and ­reducing absenteeism. In fact, studies show that employees who consider themselves highly motivated are up to four times more productive than employees who do not (Towers Watson Global Workforce Study, 2012). In other words, finding as many keys to motivation as possible in your organisation is a good idea – and to succeed in this, leaders play an essential role.

For many years, most of our knowledge about leadership has primarily focused on extrinsic motivation and only to a small degree on intrinsic motivation. The concept of extrinsic motivation refers to performing an action or behaviour that obtains an external reward or result.

People who are extrinsically motivated are not driven by whether the action is interesting or pleasurable. They are driven by the results of the action. The concept of intrinsic motivation refers to performing an action or behaviour for the sake of enjoyment and satisfaction. When people are intrinsically motivated, they pursue an activity for its own sake out of personal interest and engagement (Deci & Ryan 2000, 2008).

In this article, we will focus on perspectives that can help you unlock the potential of intrinsic motivation.

Studies show that employees who consider themselves highly motivated are up to four times more productive.

How do you unlock potential for intrinsic motivation?

One of the most important keys to intrinsic motivation can be found in situations where employees feel that their work is meaningful, and they can see the purpose of it. Work becomes meaningful when employees couple their own needs and interests with those of the organisation.

Thus, the leadership’s task is, to a greater extent, to support employees in making these couplings. It calls for leaders who know how to motivate and engage the individual employee.

The Self-Determination Theory, a much-respected motivation theory, focuses on how leaders can establish the right framework for creating meaningful work. The theory suggests that employees may be more or less motivated by a given work assignment, and that the degree of motivation depends on the fulfilment of three basic needs:

  1. The need for autonomy
  2. The need for competence/mastery
  3. The need for relatedness

The better management understands how to build a culture and an organisational set-up that supports the three needs, the better the foundation is for achieving good results with the employees through intrinsic motivation.

The most important keys to intrinsic motivation is found when employees experience their work as meaningful and can see the purpose of it.

So how do you fulfil these three needs and unlock the intrinsic motivation in practice? Here, we will focus on the evidence-based method called motivational interviewing.

Motivational interviewing was developed in the mid-1980s by William Miller (professor of psychology and psychiatry) and Stephen Rollnick (clinical psychologist and professor of healthcare communication). Rollnick and Miller’s work focused on understanding how to create motivation between people in situations, where it is typically very difficult to evoke motivation (Miller & Rollnick 2013). Over the past 30 years, they recorded conversations, which were then subsequently decoded to identify the behaviour that makes the difference between success and failure. They found that the people who succeeded in evoking motivation in others had the following behavioural traits in common:

  • Their first priority was always to establish good relationships (not necessarily agreement, but respect for each other as human beings).
  • They focused on autonomy and co-decision-making to the highest possible extent.
  • Their conversations encouraged all stories related to the importance of a given action and confidence in own abilities to succeed.

What can leaders do in practice?

There are two simple, but nevertheless, important things to work on, if you want to become better at establishing good ­relationships with your employees, ­making room for autonomy and co-decision-making and evoking more stories about importance and confidence in own abilities to succeed:

  1. Listen and reflect what you hear.
  2. Ask questions.

And in that order! All too often, the listener asks too many questions before actively listening.

Listen and reflect what you hear

Most leaders think that the challenge of listening to employees is keeping quiet and listening to what is said. However, your reaction to what you hear is crucial, making reflective listening a good technique (Miller & Rollnick 2013; Erichsen & Tolstrup 2013).

Reflective listening is a technique that enables you to reflect what employees say and mean, while remaining both curious and present. The assumption is that the employees you talk to are trying to express something that is important to them. The trick is not to be presumptuous about what employees will say. Instead, reflective listening is a tool for you to discover what employees are trying to say.

The advantage of reflective listening is that employees feel they are being heard and want to elaborate on the subject. At the same time, you get an idea of your understanding of the employees’ arguments, and the conversation continues in a constructive way. Reflective listening can be quite simple – you may simply choose to repeat some of the words that employees say. Or you may choose to reflect what employees say to continue the line of thought and create progress in the conversation.


Employee: “I think that you made the decision in our business area too quickly. If you ask me, we do not have the necessary knowledge. We should wait and gather more knowledge first.”

Leader (reflection with recap of the employee’s own words): “In your opinion, we do not have the necessary knowledge.”

Leader (reflection and continuing the line of thought): “In your opinion, we do not have the necessary knowledge – and it is important to you to have this knowledge in order to increase accuracy and for it to become a success.”

Notice that in reflective listening, you do not formulate questions – you make statements. If you formulate questions, employees will feel that they have to justify their statements. In addition, reflective listening by continuing the line of thought allows you to choose to hear the positive intentions behind employees’ statements and mirror them.

By practising reflective listening, your employees will be motivated by sharing their thoughts with you, and they will feel that the dialogue is progressing, and that you truly understand their thoughts. Thus, an employee will also be more open to your point of view and suggestions, as they feel that you understand what is important to them.

Ask questions

The leaders who are best at evoking intrinsic motivation are the ones who succeed in asking their employees good questions rather than arguing with them and who understand that feelings of importance and confidence in own abilities may be expressed individually in many different ways.

By asking open-ended questions, you include employees in solving important problems, and they are, thereby, supported in their need for autonomy and competence. When you ask questions about importance and confidence in own abilities, you ensure that employees’ motivation, perspectives and ideas are put into play, and that employees feel involved in the process.

You can use the following examples to encourage feelings of importance and confidence in own abilities:
  • We have decided to implement the following initiatives: How can the initiatives also be made important to you as an individual and as a team?
  • How important do you think it is to complete the task right now?
  • How does it compare with your experience in the area?
  • How does it correspond with your goals and what you want to achieve in the job?
  • What positive impact do you expect it will have on customers and colleagues?

Depending on the answers, you can very quickly get a sense of whether the task is seen as important by an employee and, thereby, to what extent the employee feels intrinsically motivated to carry it out. The more important and the more relevant the task is perceived, the greater an employee’s effort will be to solve it with a high degree of quality.

Furthermore, it is vital that employees ­believe they can succeed with a task in ­order for them to be motivated to take ­action and really engage in the job. Therefore, you must remember to enquire about their confidence in their own competences to succeed. By enquiring about this, you build a relationship with the employee, where the employee feels that you help build their confidence and motivation in relation to solving tasks.

The more important and the more relevant the task is perceived, the greater the employee’s effort will be to solve it with
You can use the following examples for encouraging confidence in own abilities and success with tasks:
  • To what extent do you believe that you/we will succeed with the task?
  • What strengths do you have to help you solve the task?
  • Who can help you along the way?
  • What already works well in what you do and what we do together, which can be used in the change we are facing?

The answers will reveal whether you need to improve an employee’s feelings of confidence in own abilities, or whether an employee is motivated to get stuck in with the task with a firm belief in success.

Only you can answer how much and how you will work on evoking intrinsic motivation among your employees, and which keys to intrinsic motivation will be advantageous for your organisation to discover in your organisational set-up or leadership behaviour. In other words, it is up to you to decide which doors to success and good results you wish to open with intrinsic motivation – but now you know that research shows that there are many opportunities to achieve the goals you set for yourself. Happy searching!


Deci, E. & Ryan, R. (2000) Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being.

Deci, E. L. & Ryan, R. M. (2008) Facilitating Optimal Motivation and Psychological Well-Being Across Life Dominance. Canadian Psychology, Vol. 49, pp 1-14.

Erichsen, P. & Tolstrup, M. (2013) Sigt efter motivation – Motivational Interviewing i ledelse. Dansk Psykologisk Forlag.

Ledelsesudfordringer (2013) Study published in February 2013. Lederne.

Miller, W. & Rollnick, S. (2013) Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change. Guilford Press.

Pink, D. (2009) Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Penguin Group.

Towers Workforce Study 2012.