Why is motivation a key part of sales leadership? Aren’t sellers supposed to be naturally motivated? Aren’t their personal strengths supposed to include characteristics such as being driven, competitive, focused, dominant and friendly? Why does a person like this need motivation?

In psychology motivation is generally described as something that causes people to act. If someone is hungry, hunger is the motivation that drives them to get something to eat. This example seems very basic, and it is; after all, eating is a physical need similar to sleeping, resting or even sex.


Motivation is more than what drives us to meet our physical needs. It is also the inner drive within us that causes us to act in a certain way or to do certain things that we are not required to do. It’s why some people get up early, exercise and run for an hour, even if they don’t have to. It’s what drives some people to succeed while others fail, even if they have the same parents, intelligence levels and upbringing. 

As parents, teachers, employers or coaches, we have all seen people around us who are motivated to achieve and others who are not. We have all experienced very talented and exceptionally intelligent people who are not motivated. So what can we do?


First, we must understand the true nature of motivation, which can be divided into two types: intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) motivation. 

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is generally regarded as motivation that comes from or originates from the satisfaction or enjoyment of doing something – a job, a task or something you like to do. It is also associated with a drive within the individual rather than a response to external pressures or a desire for a reward. Sellers who are intrinsically motivated are more likely to engage on their own as well as work to improve their knowledge, skills, and abilities. 


Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation generally refers to motivation that comes from the desire to attain an outcome and it often comes from outside of the individual. Common extrinsic motivations are rewards (such as money, prizes and promotions) for demonstrating the desired behavior and, the possibility of punishment for non-compliant behavior. 




If you play golf hoping to win a trophy, it’s considered extrinsic motivation. If you pay golf because you enjoy the friendship and camaraderie of your friends while playing, it’s considered intrinsic motivation. If a sales person spends extra time doing research on a customer’s problem because the sales person loves knowledge, it’s intrinsic motivation. If sales people do research only because they can’t win the business without it, or they do the research only because their boss said, “You won’t have a job any more if you don’t do this research,” that’s extrinsic motivation.

We need to think about motivation from a multidimensional perspective. Too often, we fall into the trap of thinking the key to driving sales results is through rewards and incentives. This isn’t always the case. No doubt rewards can drive short-term performance, but in order to sustain long-term sales performance, sales managers and coaches must focus on the intrinsic motivators, not just external motivators. You want to find a way to tap into the extra gear that drives performance. 

Self-Determination Theory

The outcome of extrinsic motivation is often a short-term performance gain, quickly followed by a drop in motivation when the reward is achieved or the threat is gone. In contrast, if a sales manager or coach can tap into the sales person’s needs for competence, relatedness and autonomy as defined by Self-Determination Theory (SDT), then the result is intrinsic motivation. These are key ingredients to motivation that will lead to sustained performance improvements over time. 

What is the Self-Determination Theory all about? SDT was initially developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan and has been elaborated and refined by scholars from many countries. Deci and Ryan are professors in the Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in Psychology at the University of Rochester, New York, where they direct a pre- and post-doctoral training program focused on SDT.

To quote from the SDT website:
“People are centrally concerned with motivation – how to move themselves or others to act. Everywhere parents, teachers, coaches and managers all struggle with how to motivate those that they mentor. Individuals also struggle to find energy, mobilize effort and persist at the tasks of life and work. People are often moved by external factors such as reward systems, grades, evaluations or the opinions they fear others might have of them. Yet just as frequently, people are motivated from within by interests, curiosity, care or abiding values. These intrinsic motivations are not necessarily externally rewarded or supported, but nonetheless they can sustain passions, creativity and sustained efforts. The interplay between the extrinsic forces acting on persons and the intrinsic motives and needs inherent in human nature is the territory of Self-Determination Theory.”


Focus on Intrinsic Motivation

Since the outcome of external motivation is often a short-term performance gain, quickly followed by a drop, the obvious question is: what else should we be doing? According to SDT, the answer is to satisfy the seller’s need for intrinsic motivation, including competence, relatedness and autonomy. 

  • Competence. People need to feel valuable based on their experience and knowledge, including the mastery of tasks or skills. Situational fluency is the foundation of competency required to facilitate complex sales. When sales managers and coaches help sellers develop and utilize situational fluency, they are inherently supporting this aspect of intrinsic motivation. 

  • Relatedness or connection. People need to experience a sense of belonging and attachment to other people. This includes collaboration with colleagues, coworkers and customers. Collaboration is the cornerstone of the approach.

  • Autonomy. People need to feel in control of their own behaviors and goals rather than feeling they are being controlled by someone else. 

Sales managers and coaches should be happy to know that developing sellers’ intrinsic motivations is not their responsibility. It is, in fact, the responsibility of every individual. However, sales managers do have a responsibility to create the supporting environment that enables internal motivation to thrive. Reliance upon external rewards does not provide lasting results. Sales managers must balance this by creating a work environment that allows sales people intrinsic motivations – their sense of competence, connection and autonomy – to flourish.


You have written an excellent piece. I do not say that lightly

VP of SALES, $3 Billion Revenue Co.

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