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.

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. Therefore, you should strive to find as many keys to motivation as possible in your organisation – and to succeed in this, leaders play a key 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 to obtain an external reward or result or to avoid punishment.

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 the 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.

Have you found all the keys to unlock the potential for motivation in your organisation?

How do you unlock the potential?

One of the most important keys to intrinsic motivation is to identify the situations in which the employees experience their work as meaningful and can see the purpose of it. Work becomes meaningful when the employees couple their own needs and interests with those of the organisation.

Thus, the leadership task is, to a greater extent, to support that the employees are able to make 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
  3. The need for relatedness

The better management understands how to build a culture and an organisational setup supporting the three needs, the better the foundation is for achieving good results 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 unlock the three intrinsic motivation needs in practice? Here, we will focus on the evidencebased 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 health care communication). Rollnick and Miller’s work focused on understanding how to evoke motivation in situations where it can be very difficult to evoke motivation (e.g. within abuse and health) (Miller & Rollnick 2013). For the past 30 years, they have 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 other people had the following behaviour in common:

  • Their first priority was always to establish good relationships (not necessarily agreement, but respect for one another 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 to a given action and confidence in own abilities to succeed in it.

What can leaders do in practice?

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, there are two simple, but nevertheless important, things to work on:

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

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

Listen and reflect on what you hear

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

Reflective listening is a technique that allows you to reflect on the thoughts and feelings of the employees’ words, 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 approach is not to presume to know what the employees will say. Instead, reflective listening is a tool for you to discover what the employees really are trying to say. In this way the employees experience they are being seen and 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 an even more constructive way.

Reflective listening can be simple or complex – you may simply choose to repeat back to the employees what you heard them say. Or you may choose to reflect on what the employees said and attribute strengths or other interpretations that can contribute to progress in the conversation.


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

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

Leader (complex reflection with attributing strengths): “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, the employee will feel that he/she has to justify his/her statements. In addition, reflective listening allows you to choose to hear the positive intentions behind the employees’ statements and mirror them. By practising reflective listening, your employees will be motivated by sharing their thoughts with you and feel that the dialogue is progressing, and that you truly understand their thoughts. Thus, the employee will also be more open to your point of view and suggestions, as he/she feels that you understand what is important to him/her.

Ask questions

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

By asking open-ended questions, you include the employees in the choices and solutions of important problems, and thereby they are supported in their need for autonomy and competence. The questions about importance and confidence in own abilities and in succeeding with the tasks will ensure that the employees’ motivation, perspectives and ideas are put into play, and that the employees experience being involved in the process.

The following examples can be used for encouraging importance:
  • 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 succeed with 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, the leader can very quickly get a sense of whether the task is seen as important by the employee and, consequently, to what extent the employee has intrinsic motivation to carry it out. The more important and the more relevant the task is perceived, the greater the employee’s effort will be to solve it with a high degree of quality.

Furthermore, in order to motivate the employees to take action and really engage in the job, it is necessary that they believe they can succeed with it. Therefore, you must remember to enquire into their confidence in their own competences to succeed. By enquiring into this, you build a relationship with the employee, where the employee experiences that you help build confidence and motivation for solving the tasks.

The more important and the more relevant the task is perceived, the greater the employee’s effort will be to solve it with
The following examples can be used for encouraging confidence in own abilities and in succeeding with the 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 this change we are facing?

The answers will reveal whether you need to improve the employee’s confidence in own abilities or believe in succeeding with the tasks.

Only you can answer how much and how you will work on evoking motivation among your employees, and which keys to intrinsic motivation will be advantageous for you to discover in your organisational setup or leadership behaviour. In other words, it is up to you which doors to success and good results you wish to open with intrinsic motivation – but now you know that research shows that you can reach your desired goals by finding even more keys to intrinsic motivation in your organisation. Happy search.


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.