Intrinsic Motivation is Derived from Engagement Factors: Autonomy, Meaningfulness, and Culture

Intrinsic Motivation is Derived from Engagement Factors: Autonomy, Meaningfulness, and Culture. Photo by Drew Beamer on Unsplash.

Motivation plays a key role in learning and productivity at school and at work. Engagement refers to the level of commitment to a goal or organization, where motivation is the willpower and drive to act on that commitment. Engagement and motivation are both needed and forward momentum is lost if a person becomes unmotivated or disengaged. Motivation is needed to continue to carry that feeling of commitment forward and acts as its energy to act (Pellikaan, 2021).

In order to be most effective, nurturing an individual’s intrinsic motivation is much more powerful than controlling extrinsic motivation. External motivators, like offering money or rewards, or threatening negative consequences, have limited lasting effects. People will succumb to external motivators for a short term or to fit a particular financial need, but they will be disengaged. The way to engage people and motivate them is to nurture the level of autonomy and meaningfulness while creating a positive and safe culture of growth and learning.


The idea of engagement was developed in William A. Kahn’s 1990 article in the Academy of Management Journal, called Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement. Kahn discussed three dimensions of engagement: physical, cognitive, and emotional engagement (Sinclair, 2020). Engagement usually has factors like organizational pride, leadership, management style, advancement opportunities, autonomy, resources for success, well-being, diversity, and culture (Pellikaan, 2021).

Kahn identified three psychological conditions that drive engagement. Meaningfulness is the first condition, meaning whether an employee or student finds their job meaningful. Safety is the second condition, perhaps related to autonomy, which means that the employee feels safe to devote their full self without consequences or risk. Availability is the third condition, meaning that an employee is able to involve their full self in their work or study (Radley, 2018). Distilling it down to three core factors that apply equally to work or to education, engagement comes from meaningfulness, autonomy, and culture (4 Easy & Effective Engagement Strategies for Students, 2022).


There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation comes from within and refers to doing something because it is in alignment with an individual’s passions, interests, or values. Intrinsic motivators have psychological internal rewards such as feeling fulfilments and belief in satisfying one’s calling or life’s purpose (Waters, 2022). Internal motivators align with the meaningfulness factor of engagement, as it is an intrinsic motivator to get meaning from a task. Extrinsic motivation, however, is motivations that come from external factors. These extrinsic motivators may be incentives such as promotions, bonuses, and commissions, but may also be more psychological such as recognition, power, fear, or social acceptance (or social rejection) (Waters, 2022). Leadership style, the reward system, the organizational climate or culture, and the structure of the tasks/work/classes al contribute to motivating people (Benson, 2022).

Motivated people are more likely to achieve their potential and success professionally and in education. It can be used to lead behavioral change, develop skills and competencies, generate curiosity, set goals, birth interests, create plans, inspire talents, and increase the level of engagement. When someone is motivated, they are increasingly persistent and work at a higher performance, with better outcomes. When someone is motivated, they also will pay better attention, listen actively, and contribute additional effort (Hawthorne, 2021).

Strategies for Success: Develop A Growth Mindset

In order for someone to be motivated to learn and grow and change, they must adopt a mindset for growing that embraces change, adaptation, experimentation, and learning as a good thing. People that resist change and growth are in a fixed mindset. People that are embrace change and growth are in a growth mindset (Wooll, 2021). In order to adopt that growth mindset or help create that in someone else, it is important to unfreeze the fixed mindset.

Learning new things, performing new tasks, finding new challenges, encountering new obstacles, putting in new levels of effort, and meeting new critics and new sources of feedback are all things that come at someone learning professionally or academically. A fixed mindset avoids challenges, while a growth mindset embraces challenges. A fixed mindset gives up easily when they find an obstacle, where the growth mindset persists and looks for solutions. A fixed mindset sees effort as fruitless or wasteful, but a growth mindset sees effort as part of the path to mastery. A fixed mindset ignores or avoids criticism, but a growth mindset accepts criticism and learns from feedback (Carol Dweck: A Summary of Growth and Fixed Mindsets, n.d.).

Lewin’s Change Management Model Applied to Growth Mindset

Kurt Lewin’s change management model for organizational change has three steps: unfreezing, changing, and refreezing. During unfreezing, the previous beliefs, models, processes, systems, and preconceptions are challenged, and people are motivated to change. During change, the new way of doing things is communicated and implemented. During refreezing, the change is solidified to become permanent (Awati, 2022). This is akin to becoming a daily habit.

Making the Growth Mindset a Habit

A habit takes intentional effort and repetition. The time it takes to establish a new habit varies from person to person. For some people it may be as short as a day, as in the case for something highly pleasurable or addictive, while other habits take much longer to form (DePaul, 2021). In order to adopt a growth mindset, people need to habitually deflect negativity, envision a positive outcome, consider the impact of their words, embrace new challenges, celebrate successes, be resilient to failures, and be open to new information and experiences (Dutton, 2015). Some habits that people need to adapt in this growth mindset are daily learning, valuing the process over the outcome, being realistic, and thinking of failure as a part of the learning process (Lee, 2020).

Hunger for Self-Directed Learning: Owning Their Own Learning Process

Autonomy is a key factor in engagement (Pellikaan, 2021). The ideal and most favorable motivation in learning is intrinsic motivation, especially in the case where the learning is self-directed. As people mature into lifelong learners, once they have embraced the growth mindset and the need for lifelong learning, individuals become aware of their own learning needs. This is the most important motivation to develop: the intrinsic drive to own their learning. This puts the control in the learners’ hands as well as the initiative to learn and the responsibility for the outcomes. Self-directed learners set their own goals, shape their own learning process, monitor themselves, evaluate themselves, are self-motivated, are curious, are willing to learn, and value learning (Tekkol & Demirel, 2018). Self-determination theory says that when the student is independent, competent, and has a sense of relatedness, the learner will drive themselves. These individuals will have successful study outcomes, deeper learning, and better time management (Idress, 2021).

Create Individual Meaning

Meaningfulness is another key factor in engagement (Pellikaan, 2021). Aligning education with an individual’s personal passions, interests, and values gives it meaning to the learner. Giving individuals opportunities for creativity and synthesis gives people an opportunity to express their personal passions, interests, and values. It is important for the educator to link the material and the education to a student’s interests and passions in order to motivate them (Hanif. 2021).


Creating a psychologically safe culture to grow and learn, creating an environment that encourages autonomy, and creating meaningfulness are the ways that an organization and nurture an individual’s desire to grow and learn. In this way, the organization is nurturing the person’s intrinsic motivations. Extrinsic motivations, while helpful, are not as powerful as when an individual is driven by their own motivations.


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Art Ocain

Art is a CISO and formerly held roles as a CIO, CTO, and President at managed service providers. He is experienced at leading IT ops and cybersecurity teams.