When it comes to motivating frontline employees, managers and leaders often find themselves facing a perplexing challenge. The traditional rewards — bonuses, promotions, and the like — might appear effective on the surface, but their influence can be fleeting. This is especially true for industries where employees often switch jobs for even a seemingly small hourly pay bump. More so, how can leaders and managers who do not have decision-making power over pay make an impact on employee engagement and retention?

Enter intrinsic motivation: a deeper, more sustainable way to inspire teams.

What is intrinsic Motivation?

In a nutshell, intrinsic motivation relies on feelings and emotions rather than tangible rewards. While extrinsic motivators like pay increases, bonuses, or promotions are tangible rewards, intrinsic motivators are intangible feelings like accomplishment, autonomy, and purpose. The latter creates a deeper connection, leading to the long-term commitment that seems so elusive in today’s frontline environment.


The Maslow Perspective

To grasp the significance of intrinsic motivation, it's beneficial to reference Maslow's hierarchy of needs. This pyramid, formulated by Abraham Maslow, outlines a progression of human needs. At the base are survival needs like food, water, and shelter. Only once these are secured do people seek the types of higher needs found in the realm of intrinsic motivation, such as belonging and self-esteem toward the pyramid's peak.

Here's the key takeaway: while survival needs might initially draw an individual to a job (the paycheck), it's the higher levels of the pyramid, aligned with intrinsic factors, that ensure long-term satisfaction and reduced turnover. 

How does Intrinsic Motivation impact Engagement?

At goHappy, our main focus is helping employers to more effectively engage and retain their frontline employees, and helping frontline employees feel more valued and connected at work. Intrinsic motivation and engagement go very much hand in hand. 

You can require someone to do enough to keep their job; and maybe even a bit more if you provide them with an incentive. But you can’t force someone to be engaged. Whether or not employees find enjoyment in what they do, take pride in their work, are passionate about serving the customer, or willing to go the extra mile, comes from within. They have to want to do it, which is why motivation and engagement are inextricably linked. 

The Reality of Today’s Workplace

We’ve already touched on it, but let’s address the elephant in the room when it comes to the frontline. 

Numerous companies, especially in sectors like fast food, are not willing or able to provide their frontline employees with a living wage. This leaves many grappling with survival needs (at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid), making higher-level motivations elusive. This reality partly explains the alarming 200% turnover rates in certain industries. This means that workers might jump jobs for minor pay hikes — a testament to how basic needs dominate their priorities.

But humans are wired a certain way, and pay isn’t everything. For instance, goHappy’s Engagement Model draws on the renowned Self-Determination Theory (SDT), which emphasizes the importance of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When these needs are met, employees are more motivated, proactive, and committed.

Say you’re a frontline manager in a fast food restaurant. Even if you aren’t in a position to address pay, addressing intrinsic needs can make your frontline team feel like, "Even if there's a minor wage hike elsewhere, the emotional and developmental trade-off in my current role is too great to give up."

Steps Leaders Can Take

So, how can leaders navigate this landscape and intrinsically motivate their teams? 

  1. Create a sense of belonging: Foster a workplace environment where employees feel connected, appreciated, and part of a larger purpose.
  2. Provide opportunities for growth and progress: Offering training, workshops, or mentorship programs signals an investment in their personal and career development.
  3. Acknowledge and value contributions: Recognize the hard work, dedication, and unique insights your frontline employees bring. This can boost their sense of worth and competence.
  4. Prioritize well-being: Ensuring that employees feel cared for and mentally and emotionally supported goes a long way in fostering commitment.
  1. Promote autonomy and choice: Allow employees to take ownership of their tasks, trust their judgment, and give them the space to innovate and make decisions.

Regardless of profession or industry, we all deserve to transcend basic job security to feeling valued, having a sense of belonging, and achieving personal and professional growth. What’s more, this is a big win-win: when employees are intrinsically motivated, they genuinely care about what they're doing, leading to increased engagement, loyalty, and performance.

While extrinsic rewards have their place, the sustainable way forward lies in addressing intrinsic motivators. After all, an emotionally connected employee is an engaged one. Frontline leaders can make a lot of progress toward better retention, improved customer experience, and even higher profits by rethinking traditional motivation methods. As we navigate the evolving landscape of frontline work, it's this emotional connection that will be the linchpin of organizational success.