Employee Motivation. By: Nohria, Nitin, Groysberg, Boris, Lee, Linda-Eling, Harvard Business Review, 00178012, Jul-Aug2008, Vol. 86, Issue 7/8
Our synthesis of the research suggests that people are guided by four basic emotional needs, or drives, that are the product of our common evolutionary heritage. As set out by Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria in their 2002 book Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, 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.
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 is fulfilled, discontentment when it is thwarted. 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 corporate 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 always care not just about their own compensation packages but about others' as well. It also illuminates why salary caps are hard to impose.
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 organizations, 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 anomie. At work, the drive to bond accounts for the enormous boost in motivation when employees feel proud of belonging to the organization 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 closest cohorts. But it's true that the ability to form attachments to larger collectives sometimes leads employees to care more about the organization 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 -- scientific, religious, and cultural -- that make events comprehensible and suggest reasonable actions and responses. We are frustrated when things seem senseless, and we are invigorated, typically, by the challenge 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 demoralized by those that seem to be monotonous or to lead to a dead end. 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 family and 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 behavior, 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's one reason employees can be devastated by the prospect of a merger or acquisition -- an especially significant change -- even if the deal represents the only hope for an organization's survival. So, for example, one day you might be told you're a high performer and indispensable to the company's success, and the next that you may be let go owing to a restructuring -- a direct challenge, in its capriciousness, to your drive to defend. Little wonder that headhunters so frequently target employees during such transitions, when they know that people feel vulnerable and at the mercy of managers who seem to be making arbitrary personnel decisions.
Each of the four drives we have described is independent; they cannot be ordered hierarchically or substituted one for another. You can't just pay your employees a lot and hope they'll feel enthusiastic about their work in an organization where bonding is not fostered, or work seems meaningless, or people feel defenseless. 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 won't 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.
Nitin Nohria (email@example.com) is the Richard P. Chapman Professor of Business Administration, and Boris Groysberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor, at Harvard Business School in Boston. Linda-Eling Lee (email@example.com) is a research director at the Center for Research on Corporate Performance in Cambridge, Massachusetts.