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Molly Greenberg


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Motivating employees? Start with their four basic emotional needs


In order to build an effective work culture that can improve your business’s bottom line, you must get to know your workforce.

If you grasp what drives each of your employees, you can better design policies, procedures, and practices that will appeal to your workforce and improve employee motivation.

According to Harvard professors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, motivating employees begins with recognising that to be successful, people must be in an environment that meets their four basic emotional needs: the drives to acquire, defend, bond, and learn.

Because they are hardwired into our brains, these drives influence everything we do.

So what can managers do to take advantage of these four drives? According to research compiled by Kimberly Schaufenbuel, program director at UNC Executive Development, learning how each drive operates will help you to understand how to increase employees’ overall motivation.

Get yourself up to speed by reading through the descriptions of each drive below.

Drive to acquire

We are all driven to obtain scarce goods – whether it’s physical goods like food and money or intangibles such as social status.

People crave relationships. They want to form connections with individuals and groups.

Lawrence and Nohria note that the drive to acquire tends to be relative.

We compare what we have to what others possess because we always want more than what we own. This explains why people turn to Glassdoor to see what people make on average in their position.

The easiest way to satisfy the drive to acquire is by building and then implementing a companywide reward system that differentiates between good, average and poor performance; provides opportunities for advancement; and connects rewards to employee performance.

Drive to defend

It’s natural to defend yourself, your family, your friends and your beliefs against external threats.

This drive manifests itself as defensive behavior, but also as a demand for organisations that have clear goals and intentions and that value transparency.

According to Lawrence and Nohria, fair, clear processes for performance management and resource management help to fulfill people’s drive to defend.

We want to make sense of the world around us and satisfy our curiosities.

This helps increase employees’ trust in their employer.

Drive to bond

People crave relationships. They want to form connections with individuals and groups.

When employees feel proud to be a part of their organisation and feel like they serve a purpose at their business, motivation and morale increase.

The downside to this drive is that employees often become attached to their closest cohorts. It’s often hard to break them out of their functional silos.

The most effective way to fulfill the drive to bond, Lawrence and Nohria say, is by creating a culture that supports, appreciates and practices teamwork, openness and collaboration.

Drive to learn

We want to make sense of the world around us and satisfy our curiosities.

We are frustrated when something seems incomprehensible, but we are excited to take on the challenge of figuring out solutions to obstacles faced along the way.

To satisfy the drive to learn, Lawrence and Nohria recommend that you design jobs that are challenging, meaningful and provide clear opportunities for growth. Employees who feel trapped leave their companies to find new challenges.

These insights into human behavior will help you get the most out of your employees by adhering to their basic emotional needs.

One Response

  1. Do not forget that the drives
    Do not forget that the drives for feeling valued and for power can be expressed in ways which run counter to the drives you mention here. Studies continually show that some people have either or both but sometimes one hampers the other

    The drive to be secure also conflicts with the desire to explore and take risks so humans are incredibly complex in their individuality which is why emotional intelligence as a concept has developed as a key factor in management and leadership success.

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Molly Greenberg

Community Content Manager

Read more from Molly Greenberg