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Beyond paychecks and praise: Leaders must focus on multiple motivation styles

Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are critical for keeping team members involved and prepared for the challenges they face


In addition to external incentives and disincentives, people need internal factors to keep them focused and committed to growth in whatever position they may hold.

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Emergency services are not a job where you can just “phone it in.” All EMTs, paramedics and firefighters need to be motivated, not just to the daily demands of the job, but to jump into action when things get crazy and they must give their all, and more. Unlike other jobs where performance may affect return on investment or their “bottom line,” for first responders, it can be a matter of life or death.

Two kinds of motivation come into play when talking about performance in any context:

  1. Extrinsic motivation is due to external factors that reward, or in some cases punish, behaviors in order to achieve desired outcomes.
  2. Intrinsic motivation comes from factors within people to motivate them to take action or achieve.

Especially in the workplace, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation must both exist. Very few people can remain motivated from internal factors alone when there is absolutely no external recognition or reward. Likewise, studies show that if extrinsic motivation is all that exists, people tend to need more and more of it to maintain the same levels of achievement.

Extrinsic motivation

The most basic kind of extrinsic motivation for work is a paycheck. Of course, not all EMTs, paramedics and firefighters get one. But all first responders are affected by elements of extrinsic motivation. Positive extrinsic motivation includes things like training and certifications, letters of commendation, insurance and benefits, and the opportunity for promotion.

Extrinsic motivation is important. People need to know that their work is appreciated and valued. In the short term, extrinsic factors can motivate people to goals that they might not choose on their own. You see it in private industry all the time: the employee of the month, or the agent who gets a bonus for the most quarterly sales. For firefighters, extrinsic motivation might be as simple as a trip to Dairy Queen after completing a particularly unpleasant job around the station or as formal as a written commendation for extraordinary action on an emergency scene.

Extrinsic motivation is critical, but intrinsic motivation is ultimately what keeps people going in the long haul. In addition to external incentives and disincentives, people need internal factors to keep them focused and committed to growth in whatever position they may hold.

Intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation is based on three elements: autonomy, competence and affiliation. The best leaders work hard to foster a work environment that includes all three for all members.

Autonomy is about identity and control. All people need to feel they have some individual control over their lives. Studies show that those who feel they have more autonomous control in their lives are more engaged in the workplace and suffer less burnout.

Some fire and EMS departments, especially in the past, have taken the attitude that new firefighters and providers should have no autonomy and should never make a decision – they should strictly wait to follow orders from others. This is a mistake on several levels. First, even the newest member may see or know something that no one else knows. Suppressing their ability to speak to this knowledge can have a negative effect on the entire incident. Second, all responders must be empowered to stand up when something inappropriate or dangerous is happening. And finally, if you cultivate members who never have to think, what kind of officers and supervisors will they be a few years down the line?

Competence is a key aspect of confidence. If you have skills and you feel confident and empowered to use those skills, you are more likely to step up to use that knowledge in a way that matters. On the other hand, those who feel insecure in their knowledge or skills are likely to hang back, feel bad about themselves and the job, and lack motivation to contribute.

Finally, affiliation is an important factor for intrinsic motivation. People need a sense of connection with others, especially those with whom they share goals. Firefighters depend on one another in ways other workers do not. Emergency response tends to reinforce that connection, but what about the time when members are not responding to emergency calls? How much connection do members feel with one another during those times? Is everyone included or is there a strong social hierarchy in your organization that favors some and marginalizes others?

Leaders need to create opportunities for all members to increase intrinsic motivation. This means that all members are well trained and given opportunities to make decisions. It means that all members are equally valued as part of the team, even as they may be recognized for their individual strengths and competencies.

Focus on both

Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are critical for keeping team members involved and prepared for the challenges they face. The best fire service and EMS leaders understand their role in not only providing extrinsic motivators but also fostering an environment where intrinsic motivation can flourish.


Ryan, R.M., Deci, E.L. “Self-Determination Theory: Basic Psychological Needs in Motivation, Development, and Wellness.” The Guilford Press, New York, 2017.

Linda Willing is a retired career fire officer and currently works with emergency services agencies and other organizations on issues of leadership development, decision making, and diversity management through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. She is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor with the National Fire Academy. Linda is the author of On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories. She has a bachelor’s degree in American studies, a master’s degree in organization development and is a certified mediator. Linda is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. To contact Linda, e-mail