Understanding the 'drive' dynamics at work behind employees' motivation

How can you increase the overall motivation in your team or at your company?

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By Swapnil Kamat


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In their book Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, authors Nitin Nohria and Paul Lawrence set out to explain four fundamental emotional needs – the drive to acquire, bond, comprehend and defend – that underlie everything we do. The degree to which they are satisfied directly affects our emotions and behaviour. How can you apply this knowledge to increase overall motivation in your team or at your company? In following paragraphs, we'll look closely at how each need operates and the levers you can pull to motivate your staff.

The Drive to Acquire

As human beings, we strive to gather scarce goods – both tangible (food and clothing) as well as intangible (social status and travel experience). This behaviour is a part of our evolutionary heritage. As a manager, you can apply this knowledge to design a performance appraisal system that sharply but objectively differentiates good performers from the average or poor performers.

Offering a promotion, a better pay, a private office space, a paid vacation or fast-track career development opportunities to star performers are some ways in which you can trigger their human drive to acquire and thus create a powerful motivational experience. Those who are given these rewards will experience delight, thus paving way for a culture of meritocracy to breed within your company.

The Drive to Bond

Human beings are more evolved compared to other animals in the sense that unlike other biological species, where bonding is common with members of the family or tribe, we are able to extend that sense of belonging to larger groups, such as organisations and associations, where kinship is absent. Fulfilment of the drive to bond generates strong, positive emotions of love, care, and even pride.

The most effective way to satisfy your employees' drive to bond is to foster a culture of mutual reliance, friendship and openness. Measure success not only in terms of individual outcomes, but also in terms of team outcomes. Encourage teamwork and collaboration to engender a strong sense of fellowship. Doing so will also keep in check the competitiveness of a reward distribution system. When employees feel that they belong in your company and are able to establish ties with one another, you can be assured that you have responded well to their need to bond.

The Drive to Comprehend

Curiosity has been recognised as critical motive that influences human behaviour at all stages of life. Why else would human beings send rovers and spaceships to explore the unknown? The very existence of numerous scientific, religious and cultural theories to explain the origin of species, mankind included, also suggests that we have an innate desire to make sense of the world around us. Employees too need intellectual curiosity to feel alive and engaged in their work.

The drive to comprehend can be addressed through careful job design. Give your employees a task identity. Regard them as hired working partners and help them to see how their job meaningfully contributes to your organisation's overall strategy. It is also a good idea to give them a challenge from time to time. This will improve their problem-solving capabilities, allowing them to savour moments of insight and confidently embrace new opportunities as they arise.

The Drive to Defend

The need to protect ourselves, our loved ones, our possessions and our values and beliefs against external threats is core to our survival instinct. In an organizational context, this drive manifests itself not just as defensive behaviour but also a desire to build a just and impartial environment that permits and not prohibits self-expression. Have you considered how employees' psychological well-being impacts their productivity?

Workplaces, where stress and conflict is common, make employees feel insecure, less confident, frightened and resentful. It is no wonder then that such companies are often characterised by high rates of absenteeism and voluntary attrition.

Being a motivational manager means building transparency and trust in the performance appraisal and rewards distribution systems. The earlier this is done, the better. Often times simply believing in your employees or displaying personal enthusiasm and energy does the magic.

Delegating tasks with confidence, not micro-managing your staff, keeping negative criticism private, and providing a fair amount of task autonomy are some ways by which you can meet your employees' drive to defend and provide adequate positive motivation.

Let me conclude by sharing a brief extract from Carol Sansone and Judith Harackiewicz's book "Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation: The Search for Optimal Motivation and Performance':

"There was once a rat who loved rewards. He would do anything for an extra pellet or a sugared drink. […] They (experimenters) connected him to a device that electrically stimulated an area of the brain that produced an intense pleasurable feeling. All he had to do was press a bar. So powerful was this reward that he threw himself into his work. Hour after hour, day after day, he pressed on, to the neglect of other needs, both physical and social. […] Yet he persisted, establishing himself as the number one bar presser, admired by his keepers for his outstanding behavioral efficacy. Sadly one morning he was discovered by the lab staff, disoriented and near death from starvation, dehydration, and fatigue."

The moral of this fictitious story (albeit based on actual experiments) is that human behaviour too is entrained by external rewards. Several employers and managers understand the powerful lure of contingent rewards and there is no shortage of employees who are desperate to bite the dangling carrot, often at the cost of their other basic needs.

But this is not the employee motivation strategy that I wish to prescribe. If you want your employees to consistently contribute above and beyond their "call of duty," you must address all four drives. Each drive is independent and one cannot substitute another. A competitive pay alone cannot, at least in the long run, keep your employees enthusiastic about doing a stodgy job in an organisation, where bonding is not fostered or they feel as vulnerable as clay pigeons.

Swapnil Kamat

Founder & CEO, Work Better Training

Swapnil Kamat is widely considered as one of India's best Corporate trainers. He realised his calling in the field of Training & People Development at a very early stage in his career. Ever since, he has managed to challenge the way corporate training has been looked at by focussing on behavioural and soft -skills.

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