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Andrei Calazans

Leading Engineering Teams With Intrinsic Motivation

/ 4 min read

The following piece is thoughts and comments on how engineering teams can achieve intrinsic motivation. These are based largely on my opinions, some shallow research, and experiences while working with diverse software engineering teams.

If you are reading this, you are likely thinking of the people involved with the work you are doing. And for that, I applaud your initiative. Many don’t see how humans and their relationships are the driving force to innovation and good work. It isn’t the other way around. Good work doesn’t result in a group of amazing individuals. It is a group of amazing individuals that result in good work.


While there are other school of thoughts in psychology, one states that motivation arises from outside (extrinsic) or inside (intrinsic) an individual [5].

Extrinsic motivation is when we are motivated to perform a behavior or engage in an activity because we want to earn a reward or avoid punishment. [2]

Intrinsic motivation is when you engage in a behavior because you find it rewarding. You are performing an activity for its own sake rather than from the desire for some external reward.[2]

A Balance

There isn’t one better than the other here. Each type has a different effect on human behavior, according to research. [2]

I do find it interesting for us to focus on intrinsic behavior since it looks for motivation from within.

Nevertheless, look into understanding some of the triggers of each motivation.

  1. Intrinsic motivation will decrease when external rewards are given for completing a particular task or only doing minimal work.

  2. Praise can increase internal motivation

  3. Unexpected external rewards do not decrease intrinsic motivation

Source [2]

Read more from this article.

The “Self-Determination Theory”

While reading Nir Eyal’s book Indistractable, he referenced Ryan and Deci’s work on the Self-Determination Theory.

The same way our body requires three macro-nutrients like proteins, carbohydrates, and fat to function, Ryan and Deci proposed our psyche needs competence, autonomy, and relatedness (connection).

Adapted from Indistractable by Nir Eyal

SDT states that these three needs promote intrinsic motivation. [5]

But what do they mean and, how can they be applied to software engineering teams?


The need to experience our behaviors as effectively enacted (to feel like we’ve done a good job). [2]

As an outsider to someone’s psyche, the first thing that comes to mind to help boost their sense of competence is making an appraisal - highlighting abilities and good performance. How often do you intentionally praise someone in front of your team?

However, acknowledging good work isn’t the only thing. As a leader, you can also think of ways of setting someone up for success. Do you take into consideration the probability of someone succeeding at a task when you assign them to it?

When it comes to setting someone up for success, this does not mean giving easy tasks. We must also remember the Godilocks rule that states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. [4].

This is not an exhaustive list. I hope only to inspire you.


The need to experience behavior as voluntary and “…reflectively self-endorsed”, to feel like we have control over what we do.

Interesting enough, Indistractable also agrees

”A culture of high expectations and low control are associated with depression”

Indistractable by Nir Eyal

Possible actions to increase the sense of autonomy are: Give Room for decision making, be goal-driven instead of micro-managing; End cycles with clear actionable feedback, even when negative as long as it is actionable with a clear path to improvement; Give the ability to influence product/solution directions of upcoming cycles.

Engineers are analytical decision-makers. They enjoy shaping decisions, include them in these conversations.

Relatedness (Connection)

The need to “…interact, be connected to, and experience caring for others”

In the end, people are more important than technology. Focus on having intentional healthy relationships. Be genuinely interested in them, not only their work but for in their personal interests - if you read the classics “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership” and “How to win friends and influence people” you will notice the core fundamental is this: be genuinely interested in them.


  1. (Accessed Sunday, April 18, 2021)
  2. Differences Between Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation (Accessed Sunday, April 18, 2021)
  3. (Accessed Sunday, April 18, 2021)
  4. The Goldilocks Rule: How to Stay Motivated in Life and Business (Accessed Sunday, April 18, 2021)
  5. Tranquillo J, Stecker M. Using intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in continuing professional education. Surg Neurol Int. 2016;7(Suppl 7):S197-9.