The recruitment industry is a notoriously stressful environment. Getting results hinges on effectively motivating your team to always be their best. The question of how best to motivate people comes down to why individuals act in certain ways, and what will make them more inclined to take the actions you most desire.


How Most Recruitment Companies Motivate Staff…

The majority of recruitment companies view stress as a natural part of their working environment. Recruitment managers are well aware that putting pressure on their team to produce results motivates them to perform. Key performance indicators (KPIs) are used to define and measure performance and progress, as a means of ensuring goals are met.

The specific indicators used are decided upon in advance, and generally reflect the long-term goals of an organisation. KPIs are the driving force behind most businesses in the recruitment industry. High-pressure environments are created to encourage staff to hit targets. They are expected to start early, finish late, and work damn hard all day.

If they hit their targets they’re rewarded, usually with cash bonuses and/or a pay rise.

There are several psychological theories about the best ways to motivate people, yet the majority of recruitment companies fall back on the tried and tested combination of KPIs, pressure, and the promise of financial rewards, which they’ve been using for years.

My personal experience and our work at Insight Executive Group has taught me there’s a different way of doing things.

A way that reduces workplace stress through the establishment of intrinsic motivation.

A better way…


Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation comes from rewards that are tangible, physical things given to employees by their managers when they hit targets, or achieve certain goals. These rewards are most often financial and include bonuses, pay raises, and various benefits.

They’re known as ‘extrinsic’ due to the fact they are external to a person’s work, and outside a person’s control. The employee has limited control in when rewards are granted, what they consist of, or their size and value.

If we’re motivated to act by the promise of a particular reward, or the desire to avoid any punishment that may have been promised for failure, we are being extrinsically motivated.

Here are a few familiar examples of extrinsic rewards that go beyond money:

  • Studying hard in order to obtain a high grade.
  • Arriving at work on time every day in order to avoid being fired.
  • Taking part in a sport in order to win social acclaim and/or a trophy.
  • Running in order to lose weight.
  • Competing for a scholarship through the achievement of good grades, completion of relevant work, or obtainment of relevant experience.

The rise of extrinsic motivation and reward systems dates back to the days when work involved a lot more bureaucracy and relied on set routines. The ability to follow those routines and abide by the rules of your job were essential to the success of any business or work efforts. Extrinsic rewards were generally the only option available for motivating workers.

Times have changed considerably since then. Despite this, extrinsic rewards are still important, pay being one of the major factors people use to decide whether or not to take a job, and unfair or low rates of pay are extremely bad for motivation.

Beyond this, however, the use of extrinsic motivation is no longer the only option. When it comes to everyday motivation, intrinsic rewards can be far more effective.


Intrinsic Motivation

“Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. We simply enjoy an activity or see it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualise our potentials.”​

Coon & Mitterer 2012, Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior with Concept Maps

Intrinsic motivation differs considerably, in that intrinsic rewards are grounded in the psychology of the individual recipient. When people complete work they find meaningful they draw their own rewards from it.

The more proficient they are at that work, the more rewarding they will find it. Rather than motivating people by offering them external rewards, intrinsic motivation depends upon creating an environment in which individuals can find personal meaning in the work they complete, and thus motivate themselves to work harder, become more proficient, and more efficient.

Monetary rewards can buy a lot of things, but it’s difficult to purchase the kind of satisfaction that comes with doing work you love, and knowing you excel at it.

Here are a few examples of intrinsic rewards:

  • Studying a new subject for the joy of new knowledge.
  • Playing a sport because you love it.
  • Running for the joy of movement, or experiencing the outdoors.
  • Solving a puzzle because you love a challenge.

All of this behaviour stems from an internal desire to act for the sake of the activity itself. Workers who are intrinsically motivated are compelled to do their jobs as well as possible because they find it naturally satisfying to complete the work to a high standard.


Why Intrinsic Rewards Are Such Powerful Motivators…

The reason intrinsic rewards are so powerful is two-fold. On the one hand, rewards that come from within are generally far more powerful than anything those with monetary value. In addition, there’s considerable research supporting the fact that offering people external rewards for any activity they find internally rewarding will actually reduce the amount of value they naturally draw from the action.

Putting a price on something that’s priceless inevitably reduces its value.  

The value of intrinsic motivation in any job setting (recruitment or otherwise) is the boost to creativity experienced by a team that’s motivated by their own internal rewards. While it’s easy to increase productivity through the use of extrinsic rewards, by using intrinsic rewards you can not only increase the productivity of your workers but also the quality of their work.

Is it more important they get things done fast, or well?

People are far more likely to come up with inventive solutions to problems and innovative ideas when they are engaged in their work, interested, and keen to take on the challenge.


Using Intrinsic Motivation Instead Of A High Pressure Environment…

Let’s be honest for a minute. Nobody wants to be bad at their job. Everyone wants to love what they do, loves to be great at what they do and earn the big bonuses, the promotions, and the praise.

So surely it isn’t necessary to put people in high pressure environments, subjecting them to a lot of stress that adversely affects them (professionally and personally) in order to get them to perform?

At Insight we do things differently.

We try to take the pressure off wherever possible. One way of doing this is to help our staff feel they are more in control of their working life. We do this by enabling them to achieve a great work/life balance.

Members of the team with families are able to work flexibly. We know they need to be available for their children and that sometimes this doesn’t quite fit in with set working hours. It occasionally means taking a break from work completely in order to get the quality time that’s so essential to a growing family.

We also encourage our team members to pursue the things they care about outside work. One member of the team recently took time out to perform at Glastonbury, while another has been studying for his Masters in Scriptwriting while working.


Intrinsic Motivation for Business…

“There’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.”

Psychologically speaking there are three three universal needs experienced by all humans, which govern intrinsic motivation: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Dan Pink, speaker and author of the influential motivation book, Drive, takes this one step further and identifies purpose as another primary need that governs intrinsic motivation.

The social sciences agree that, once basic needs for food, shelter, and warmth have been met, external rewards do not provide the best motivation for corporate workers. Bonuses, pay rises, and other financial incentives are only going to get you so far when it comes to generating consistent motivation, because (provided we have enough to pay for the essentials) human beings generally value other things more than money.

There are exceptions to this, and different people have different thresholds for meeting ‘essentials’, but generally speaking the majority of workers in the world of business are better motivated by intrinsic rewards than they are financial ones.

Extrinsic motivation still has its place, in particular where repetitive jobs are concerned, but when it comes to any work that requires creativity or innovation, offering extrinsic rewards will only serve to demotivate people.

Identifying effective intrinsic motivations for your team and focusing on those is definitely the way forward if you want to propel your business to greater success, and drag your team out of the stress-induced malaise they are likely experiencing.


The Motivational Toolkit…

There are a few handy tricks you can use to switch from extrinsic to intrinsic motivation and reduce the stresses of your working environment:


Provide a Challenge…

People are more easily motivated when the attainment of a particular goal or reward isn’t certain. Rather than offering cash rewards for hitting known quantities, make your rewards available for the team member who provides the most innovative solution to a problem, or comes up with the most creative new idea.

Following on from this, encouraging a little healthy competition can go a long way towards improving motivation. Likewise, people naturally gain satisfaction when they help others, so encouraging your team to be as cooperative as possible will give them a natural boost.


Pique Their Curiosity…

Sensory curiosity is the effect experienced when a person’s surroundings and physical environment are interesting. Cognitive curiosity occurs when an activity grabs a person’s interest, making them naturally want to know more about it. You will find your team is more motivated when one or both forms of curiosity have been piqued.



In order to fully embrace the notion of intrinsic motivation within your team it’s important everyone is aware of the vision you have for your business as a whole, as well as individual projects they are working on.

It’s important for team members to understand why their work matters, and what the point of their tasks are. If you fail to define your goals, or make them too vague, or too broad, the creative performance of the team will suffer.


Give Them Control…

Knowing what your goals are isn’t enough – your team needs to share those goals, and have autonomy in their pursuit.

It’s natural to want to feel in control of yourself and your situation. Allowing your team to determine which tasks they will perform when, what direction they would like to take, and which methods are going to work best, will ensure they feel fully in control. As long as the work gets done well and on time, how they get there is best left up to them.


Feedback and Praise…

Another natural human desire is to have our achievements recognised. Knowing the work they have done is appreciated and has been done to a high standard will increase the internal motivation a person feels to continue doing a good job, and further improve their performance.

Feedback needs to be given in the right manner, however, as creating evaluation pressure (negative consequences for poor feedback, such as pay cuts) can seriously damage creativity.

It’s difficult to volunteer new ideas if you’re afraid they will be greeted critically, resulting in ridicule or penalisation.

Despite this risk, providing feedback is essential. Employees can easily start to feel that their effort is unappreciated and/or role is unimportant. People need to know that their creativity and effort will be respected, regardless of whether it is agreed with, and that anything they suggest will be given careful consideration. It’s also important to provide positive feedback for a job well done, rather than falling into the trap of only commenting on poor performance.

The best managers will establish a culture of regularly ‘checking in’ with their team, rather than making people feel they are constantly ‘checking up’ on them. Provide regular feedback, both positive and negative, and avoid being overly critical if an idea doesn’t work out. Rather, look at all failures as learning experiences and help your team figure out what went wrong, why, and how it can be avoided in the future.


The Right Kind of Pressure…

Just as evaluation pressure can negatively affect motivation, while positive evaluation reduces stress, there are other situations in which pressure can be beneficial, provided it’s properly applied. For example, giving someone an important problem that needs solving creates pressure, but it’s in the form of a challenge, and demonstrates you have faith in the person assigned the task. It’s an important job, and you believe they are the best person to do it.

This kind of pressure does wonders for creativity and motivation. It creates a sense of urgency that provides a natural, positive high, and simultaneously replicates the sensation of having a ‘mission’.

Using this type of positive pressure is helpful. Just be careful to ensure that it’s not career-related pressure that will result in the loss of income, or promotion, or employment in general, as this is negative.


Feeling Stressed And Disenfranchised?

We get it. If you’re a recruiter looking for a better working environment, get in touch for a confidential chat about moving to Insight…

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Richard Collins, Managing Director at IEG. Originally a design engineer, Richard has clocked up 10 years’ experience as an executive level recruiter within public sector procurement, finance and commercial management. Career highlights include generating circa £1.2m gross profit from two start-up businesses in five-years, but he also thrives on delivering and building teams. Post 5pm accomplishments include extreme sports and being Daddy to two beautiful daughters.
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