Getting employees to perform at their peak has always been the headache of most managers in diverse organisations.
Making out what galvanises and indeed motivates us as human beings has always been a centuries-old enigma.
Some of histories most influential thinkers about human behaviour – Freud, Maslow, McClelland, and Stacey Adams – have taught tremendously about why people do the things they do.
Such great brains, however, according to Linda-Eling Lee and her colleagues at Harvard Business School did not have the advantage gleaned from modern brain science.
Surely, their theories were based on careful and educated investigation, but also exclusively on observation, they opine.
“Imagine trying to infer how a car works by examining its movements (starting, stopping, accelerating, turning) without being able to take apart the engine.”
Fortunately, new cross-disciplinary research in fields like neuroscience, biology, and evolutionary psychology has allowed researchers to peek under the “bonnet” to learn more about the human brain.
The synthesis of research set in the book “Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices” by Paul Laurence and Nitin Nohira (Linda-Eling Lee's colleagues) suggest that people are guided by four basic emotional needs, or drives, that are the product of our common evolutionary heritage.
They are the drives to ACQUIRE (obtain scarce goods, including intangibles such as social status); BOND (form connections with individuals and groups); COMPREHEND (satisfy our curiosity and master the world around us); and DEFEND (protect against external threats and promote justice). These drives underlie everything we do.
Leaders attempting to boost motivation should take note. It is hard to argue with conventional wisdom backed by empirical evidence that a motivated workforce means better organisational performance.
But what precise actions can leaders take to satisfy the four drives and, in the process, increase their employees' overall motivation?
Prof Lee and her colleagues recently completed two major studies aimed at answering that question.
Both studies showed that an organisation's ability to meet the four fundamental drives explains on the average, about 60 per cent of employees' variance on motivational indicators while previous models have explained only about 30 per cent.
They also found out that certain drives influence some motivational indicators than others. For instance, fulfilling the drive to bond has the greatest effect on employee commitment, whereas meeting the drive to comprehend is most closely linked with employee engagement.
But a company, they advise, can best improve overall motivational scores by satisfying all four drives in concert.
“The whole is more than the sum of the parts; a poor showing on one drive substantially diminishes the impact of high scores on the other three.”
Drivers of motivation
Because the four drives are hardwired in our brains, the degree to which they are satisfied directly affect our emotions and, by extension, our behaviour.
The drive to acquire. We are all driven to acquire scarce goods that bolster our sense of well-being.
We experience delight when this drive if fulfilled, discontented when it is frustrated.
This phenomenon applies not only to physical goods like food, clothing, housing, and money; but also, to experiences like travel and entertainment – not to mention events that improve social status, such as being promoted and getting a corner office or a place on the board.
The drive to acquire tends to be relative (we always compare what we have with what others possess) and insatiable (we always want more).
That explains why people care not just about their own compensation package but others' as well.
The drive to bond. Many animals bond with their parents, kinship group, or tribe; but only, humans extend that connection to larger collectives such as organisations, associations, and nations.
The drive to bond, when met, is associated with strong positive emotions like love and caring, and when not, with negative ones like loneliness and lack of group norms and values (anomie).
At work, the drive to bond accounts for the enormous boost in motivation when employees feel proud belonging to the organisation and for their loss of morale when the institution betrays them.
It also explains why employees find it hard to break out of divisional or functional silos:
People become attached to their closet cohorts. But it is true that the ability to form attachments to larger collectives sometimes leads employees to care more about the organisation than about their local group within it.
The drive to comprehend. We want very much to make sense of the world around us, to produce theories and accounts that make events comprehensible and suggest reasonable actions and responses.
We are frustrated when things seem senseless, and we are rejuvenated by challenges of working out answers.
In the workplace, the drive to comprehend accounts for the desire to make a meaningful contribution.
Employees are motivated by jobs that challenge them and enable them to grow and learn, and they are demoralised by those that seem to be monotonous.
Talented employees who feel trapped often leave their companies to find new challenges elsewhere.
The drive to defend. We all naturally defend ourselves, our property and accomplishments, our friends and our ideas and beliefs against external threats.
This drive is rooted in the basic fight-or-flight response common to most animals.
In humans, it manifests itself not just as aggressive or defensive behaviour, but also as a quest to create institutions that promote justice, that have clear goals and intentions, and that allow people to express their ideas and opinions.
Fulfilling the drive to defend leads to feelings of security and confidence; not fulfilling it produces strong negative emotions like fear and resentment.
The drive to defend tells us a lot about people's resistance to change; it is one reason employees can be devastated by the prospect of merger or acquisition – and especially significant change – even if the deal represents the only hope for an organisation's survival.
According to the proponents, each of the four drives discussed is independent; they cannot be ordered hierarchically or substituted one for another.
You cannot just pay your employees a lot and hope they will feel enthusiastic about their work in an organisation where bonding is not fostered, or work seems meaningless.
Nor is it enough to help people bond as a tight-knit team when they are underpaid or toiling away at deathly boring jobs.
You can certainly get people to work under such circumstances – they may need the money or have no other current prospects – but you will not get the most out of them, and you risk losing them altogether when a better deal comes along.
To fully motivate your employees, you must address all four drives, they advise.
Levers of motivation
Although fulfilling all four of employees' basic emotional drives is essential for any company, the research suggests that each drive is best met by a distinct organisational lever.
The reward system. The drive to acquire is most easily satisfied by an organisation's reward system – how effectively it discriminates between good and poor performance, ties rewards to performance, and gives the best people opportunities for advancement.
Culture. The most effective way to fulfil the drive to bond – to engender a strong sense camaraderie – is to create a culture that promotes teamwork, collaboration, openness, and friendship.
Job design. The drive to comprehend is best addressed by designing jobs that are meaningful, interesting, and challenging.
Performance-management and resource-allocation processes. Fair, trustworthy, and transparent processes for performance management and resource allocation help to meet people's drive to defend.
Organisations are advised to take actions that, in concert, fulfil all four employee drives.
A comprehensive approach is the best. When employees report even a slight enhancement in the fulfilment of any of the four drives, their overall motivation shows a corresponding improvement; however, major advances come from the aggregate effect on all four drives.
This effect occurs not just because more drives are being met but because actions taken on several fronts seem to reinforce one another – the holistic approach is worth more than the sum of its constituent part, even though working on each part adds something.
The model of motivation described posits that employee motivation is influenced by a complex system of managerial and organisational factors.
A motivated workforce can boost company performance, the insights into human behaviour discussed in this article will help organisations and executives get the best out of employees by fulfilling their most fundamental needs.