March 28, 2024

The Transformative Power of Intrinsic Motivation in Healthcare Leadership

Clinician Leadership

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This is a difficult time for healthcare leaders. Burnout among healthcare professionals is at an all-time high, fueled by staffing shortages and unrelenting pressure to deliver operational and financial improvements. For leaders, in particular, challenges include countering discouragement and creating conditions so workers are compelled to excel apart from the carrot-and-stick approach: rewards and punishments to induce desired behaviors. More than ever, healthcare leaders must grow their understanding of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation.

Reward or coercion? Understanding the motivation continuum

Motivation happens on a continuum, say researchers: On one end, we have complete apathy. The next stage is extrinsic motivation. At the highest level, we have intrinsic motivation.

A visual representation of the motivation continuum, illustrating various levels of motivation from low to high. The continuum progresses from demotivated states to motivated states, showcasing different factors influencing motivation along the spectrum.


Amotivation, a state where motivation is absent, is where workers operate in complete apathy, finding nothing interesting or inspiring about their day-to-day work.

Extrinsic motivation relies on external rewards or coercion to get things done: Think bonuses for hitting targets, or the threat of disciplinary action. While extrinsic motivators have a place in high-performing organizations, they often lead to team tension, stress, and a sense of obligation rather than engagement. Though teams can benefit from an external nudge or incentive now and then, the effects of extrinsic motivation tend to be temporary.

Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is the fuel that propels us from within. It’s about finding value and purpose in the work itself. Intrinsically motivated teams perform with energy, persistence, and a sense of gratitude. Their actions are driven by a genuine desire to learn, grow, and make a difference. 

A 2012 study showed that intrinsic motives have 3X the impact on employee engagement levels compared to extrinsic motives. Research by McKinsey reported similar findings, with intrinsically motivated employees showing 46% higher levels of job satisfaction and 32% greater levels of commitment to their jobs — plus lower likelihood to experience burnout.

The ARC: 3 ingredients for a culture of intrinsic motivation

Susan Fowler, a renowned researcher and author on the science of motivation, argues that the key to unlocking intrinsic motivation lies in meeting three fundamental psychological needs: Autonomy, Relatedness, and Competence (ARC).

Autonomy refers to the freedom workers have to self-direct and make choices about their work. When healthcare workers feel a sense of ownership over their tasks, they become more engaged and experience less burnout.

Relatedness reflects a feeling of connection with others. Knowing you’re part of a supportive team fosters a sense of belonging and strengthens commitment. Leaders play a crucial role in establishing trust and fostering healthy team dynamics.

Competence is the feeling of being capable and effective in one’s role. As a healthcare leader, you can nurture competence by encouraging continuous learning opportunities, celebrating achievements, and providing constructive feedback. When healthcare workers feel confident in their skills, they’re more likely to be intrinsically motivated to excel.

Building your ARC

The journey towards a culture of intrinsic motivation starts with self-awareness, particularly where gaps and improvement opportunities exist in the ARC needs of workers under your care. Leaders who prioritize and optimize intrinsic motivation unlock a wellspring of creativity, resilience, and commitment — critical components for sustained success in today’s healthcare environment. By igniting the spark of intrinsic motivation, we can all contribute to a more resilient and fulfilling healthcare system.

▶▷ Your turn: Reaping the rewards of intrinsic motivation starts by investing in your own personal and leadership development. Learn how MEDI Leadership helps leaders like you go from transactional to transformational, with the results to match.

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About the author

Rachel Miller, MD

A certified executive coach and physician leader, Dr. Rachel Miller is passionate about bridging the gap between clinical and executive leaders.

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