Over the years, I’ve read a number of text books, magazine articles, and leadership newsletters about motivating employees. From what I remember, they tended to be rather “one-dimensional.” At least I’m remembering it that way based on an article I read in July-August’s Harvard Business Review. Now, I could be all wrong on this, but from what I remember, most of what I’ve read was about finding out what motivated am employee, and focusing your efforts on that. I suppose it could have meant multidimensional, but I tended to take it as finding out if people wanted more money, position, importance, recognition, etc. But this article by Nitin Nohria, Boris Groysberg, and Linda-Eling Lee made me think.

The part that really hit me at first was the authors claim to have identified drives that could explain almost 60% of the variance in whether an employee was motivated or not. Hmm, that’s a pretty good percentage when you think about it. If you know your employees well, and you can hit at least 60% of those areas that motivate an employee, and possibly more as you get to know the employee, you would have one extremely motivated workforce. And what company wouldn’t love to have employees that were that motivated.

The drivers that they identified in the article are:

  • The drive to acquire – we all want to earn money in order to buy what we need to survive, but by structuring rewards such that poor performance gets the same as excellent performance, motivation is destroyed.
  • The drive to bond – “… the drive to bond accounts for an enormous boost in motivation when employees feel proud of belonging to the organization” (pp. 80-81). This is where leadership can really shine. If we can create a culture of caring and trust within companies, employees will bond easily and also defend (#4) against competition much more aggressively.
  • The drive to comprehend – “We are frustrated when things seem senseless, and we are invigorated, typically, by the challenge of working out answers” (p. 81). I really appreciate this concept, because I have been in situations where decisions were made that had I known the reasoning behind the decisions, I know I would have fought harder to accomplish the end result.
  • The drive to defend -“Fulfilling the drive to defend leads to feelings of security and confidence; not fulfilling it produces strong negative emotions like fear and resentment” (p. 81). I know I would rather defend against competition in the world than be insulated from it and not know why things aren’t doing as well.

The article presents an interesting statistic: if you take a company in the 50th percentile in its industry, and are able to improve on one of these drives, the company would only increase to the 56th percentile. But if you engage the employees on all four drives, it rises to the 88th percentile. That’s a significant gain!

What’s the leader’s drive in this knowledge? I can give you a quick, non-altruistic one; imagine your bonus if you are able to increase productivity to drive the company’s profits up that much in just a few years?

— Nohria, N., Groysberg, B. & Lee, L. (2008, July-August). Employee Motivation: A Powerful New Model. Harvard Business Review, 86-7/8, 79-84.