Every manager knows that a motivated workforce means better performance. For centuries management has tried to solve the puzzle of employee motivation. How do you motivate individuals and teams to perform – and even to go above and beyond what is required?

A new take on (employee) Motivation

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In recent years research that spans disciplines such as Neuroscience, Evolutionary Psychology and biology has provided a powerful new model.

This research suggests motivation is linked to four drives: the need to acquire, to bond, to understand and to defend.

These powerful hardwired forces direct our behaviour. Each of these four drives is explained in more detail below:

The Drive to Acquire

We are hardwired to acquire goods that are scarce – it boosts our sense of well being. This drive is relative: we compare what we have acquired to others. It is also insatiable: we want to acquire more and more. This drive covers things like food, clothing, money and extends to events that bolster our social standing – e.g. promotion, getting a new job title.

The Drive to Bond

In the animal kingdom bonding with parents and the tribe is common. It is only in humans that this is extended to the collective – in the form of organisations and nations.

When we bond we experience strong positive emotions such as caring and love. However failure to bond is associated with emotions such as loneliness and isolation. In organisations, this drive explains how employees feel highly motivated and engaged when they feel proud of belonging to a team or company. If this sense of belonging does not exist in an individual or team, loss of morale is inevitable.

The Drive to Understand

This is the desire to make sense of the world we live in. We see this in young children as they begin exploring and making sense of their surroundings. We produce theories and models to comprehend things that happen.

We are challenged by problem solving and working out answers. We get frustrated if things seem senseless. At work employees are motivated by challenging work. It provides opportunities to grow and learn. Often people leave companies looking for more of a challenge when they stop learning.

The Drive to Defend

This drive is at the heart of our basic fight or flight response. We are hardwired to defend ourselves, our loved ones, our belongings and our achievements from external threats. Our need to defend is not just visible in defensive, sometimes aggressive behaviour. But it is at the heart of why we want our workplace and other institutions to be fair and just.

Think of all the conversations at work that relate back to issues of perceived injustice. For organisations and management, this drive can be at the heart of resistance to change. It explains why people react so strongly if they don’t get recognised for their achievements. Also it is a reason why employees experience such distress if their organisation is facing merger or acquisition.

What do you think? Have you seen these forces drive behaviour in your organisation?