Human Motivation Theory: How Employees Are Motivated

By Dummies Press

In this discussion, you find out how to identify and understand the components that will motivate employees. First, though, you need to understand that trust is the foundation from which all relationships form. Trust creates a stable environment and eliminates doubt that basic needs will be fulfilled, promoting feelings of safety. When trust isn’t in place, doubt overtakes a group — and doubt is the killer of motivation. If the members of an organization don’t feel that their leaders have their best interests at heart or are trustworthy, the general refrain becomes “Why should I bother?” When you have enough people saying that, it’s safe to assume they aren’t motivated. Often, their level of engagement is so low that you’re not sure they’re really working at all. They’re just dialing it in for the day’s pay. (The figure shows the connection between trust and doubt.)

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Trust’s impact on motivation.

Human motivation most often stems from the needs system. There are three categories:

  • Deficiency needs: The bare basics of life, including food, water, health, shelter, sex, safety, and employment.
  • Growth needs: Accomplishment, achievement, self-esteem, connection, and meaning.
  • Self-achieving needs: Self-awareness, giving back, and helping others.

When deficiency and growth needs are met, they increase the possibility that an individual can meet a self-achieving need. Having these needs met builds trust and esteem to accomplish whatever the individual wants to achieve. With that said, assume that deficiency needs are met and your employees are seeking to fulfill their growth and self-achieving needs.

Look, listen, and categorize as a values-based leader

One of the attributes of being a values-based leader is the ability to listen and really hear other people by pausing long enough to get a sense of who they are. Active listening is great, but getting at the intent behind someone’s words is a sign of an empathetic leader. Everyone communicates in a way that reflects their deepest desires and motives. This discussion starts with basic classifications to help provide some framework for exactly what you’re looking and listening for.

Note the 3 things that motivate people

In 1961, Dr. David McClelland looked deeper into needs and classified motivational principles into three more categories: power, affiliation, and achievement. According to this theory, everyone possesses one or more of these motivational triggers. One trigger is dominant, and the others vary in intensity:

  • Power: Those who are motivated by power like to plan and use that word a lot. Creating the plan is a way to ensure that they’ve secured power, authority, and/or control over a situation. Power-focused individuals fear a loss of power or the perception of lack of authority more than anything else. They’ll keep a lid on anything that deviates from the plan. The lighter, brighter side of power is the thought process that a plan ensures others’ safety. Safety, to power-focused individuals, means making sure that everyone is clear and moving in the same direction. They take ownership of this duty.
  • Affiliation: Here you have social butterflies, group leaders, and those who love being on the inside track. They’re group-centric, want to be liked, and are often deemed social directors or ringleaders. Affiliation-focused individuals fear rejection. To be rejected would mean they’ve been excluded. Everybody wants to belong, to some extent, but those motivated by affiliation seek it as a means to exert their own form of power.
  • Achievement: Achievers are always focused on the next goal, sometimes even before the present goal has been achieved. They’re always looking at what’s next. They’re motivated by the achievement of goals. Failure is their kryptonite. Their mantra is “Failure is not an option.” It’s important to know that these individuals often move from one goal to another without much of a pause. Another way to view this trigger is that these individuals like a challenge and thrive on having another mountain to climb or land to conquer.

Depending on their use, the triggers can be profoundly positive or destructive; there are always positive and negative aspects to everything. Someone with power needs may well be a mobilizing and unifying force behind a plan. And a control enthusiast may squelch the energy of a whole team with their need to be in complete control. Positive and negative possibilities exist within everyone.

Assess yourself

Did you immediately recognize yourself as you read the categories? Most people do. Consider writing your perceived motivations on a sticky note and keep it in your planner. But before you do, consider the questions here to further refine your assessment.

Working within the three categories given, what would you consider to be your dominant motivational trigger? Ask yourself these questions:

  • What motivates you to come to work?
  • What’s the reward you’re really seeking?
  • Why this job and/or this company?

Forget preconceived notions, like the idea that wanting power is necessary to be a leader. Leaders come in many different forms, with different strengths. Some are more socially driven, relying on their connections and group influence to create success. A drive to achieve promotes the idea that they’re highly focused. Whatever motivates you, knowing yourself can provide insights into your own behaviors, both known and previously unknown. Additionally, assessing yourself first creates a platform for understanding and compassion for yourself — and ultimately for others. Knowing why you react in a certain way in any situation will help you understand the same about members of your team.

It’s honesty time. No one else is looking at the notes you’ve made. Regardless of which trigger motivates you the most, you can discern more about who you are and how you operate, and when you’re feeling down or demotivated, you can usually find the answer in your dominant motivating factor not being fulfilled.

If affiliation is your dominant motivation, for example, having an inclusive, team-spirited, or community-centric form of expression in your leadership motivates you. However, exclusion in any form demotivates you. With this awareness, consider the importance of affiliation for you in your life. What does it bring you? Some answers can be acceptance, influence, and/or using that influence to gain something for either yourself or someone else. That can include simple things like networking through your circle of influence to help someone else find a job.

Assess your team

After you assess yourself, consider your team and ask the same questions. Jot down those answers on a piece of paper or a sticky note. Put a star next to the one or two you think rank highest for your team for now.

Keep in mind that motivation sometimes looks as if one stimulus moves a person forward, but if you look more closely, it turns out to be something completely different, or at least the context of it may become different. This is an important distinction to be made and one that will help you speak directly to those triggers. When you know the root cause, it’s much easier to see through the weeds.

Consider the last staffer you engaged who seemed not to be “feeling it” any longer. They used to be engaged and motivated. What changed? What were they getting that’s missing now? If you know the person well enough, you may be able now to look through the motivational trigger material here to figure out which one reflects who they are. Or you may need to have a conversation to learn more. Listen to what they say and how they say it. Notice what their body language cues are expressing. Then re-motivate the individual by tapping into what they truly want. This is the reverse-engineering mentioned earlier. Here is one example of how to do this.

“Lila” was once a motivated, energetic part of the team, but recently she has been quiet and a bit withdrawn. You ask her how things are going. Her body language is a bit slumped, and she looks at her shoes a lot while you’re chatting. After a little coaxing, she reveals that she just feels unhappy but she can’t quite pinpoint why. Her work is still good and it’s challenging, but it’s just not … fun.

Lila’s manager realizes that for the past 18 months, Lila was involved in a large-scale initiative bringing people from various offices together to problem solve a part of the business. Now Lila engages with only her manager daily. It becomes apparent that Lila misses the ability to set and reach goals in her work. The prior setting had her in a very structured type of work, and she loved it. Her manager realizes that Lila has really excelled every time she has been in that type of structure. Realizing that Lila needs that achievement in her work in order to feel fully engaged, her manager moves her work around to include others and asks her to lead structuring benchmarks and checkpoints for an upcoming project. Within weeks Lila perks up and is back to normal energetic self.

Each process follows the same basic formula:

  • Be observant. Take the time to notice changes in your employee’s connection to their work.
  • Identify patterns. Consider patterns of when the employee worked happily or excelled in certain situations.
  • Identify the motivation. Based on the pattern, is the motivating factor power, affiliation, or achievement?
  • Reverse-engineer the motivating factor. Give them what works for them — for example, if they like to achieve goal after goal, give them another goal to strive for. Otherwise you’ll lose that person.
  • Take action. Redirect the employee’s work into the form that works as a motivating tool: power people want to plan and be the authority, affiliation people prefer a community-driven environment, and achievement folks want to check off goal completions.

When assessing others, consider the dominant behavior, but also be aware that there may be secondary motivational factors. People are multifaceted, not one-dimensional. So, you’ll probably be working with a dominant trigger and a secondary trigger. Look, listen, and watch the engagements of your team to see what really motivates them, and dispense your motivational remedies accordingly.

The great news is that once you know these triggers and how to recognize them, you’ll be able to utilize them in many facets of your life. Consider practicing this concept on your friends, partners, and, yes, even your family. Your next holiday dinner together will be infinitely more interesting when you view everyone at the table through this filter. No, you’re not being manipulative. You’re honing your ability to understand others.

Fear motivates more than anything else

Unfortunately, people are even more motivated by what they fear than by what they want. If you set a goal to do something — it doesn’t matter if it’s losing weight, saving up for a new car, or finding the perfect job — beware your internal saboteur. The severity of the sabotage depends on your perception of self. In some people, self-sabotage is more prevalent than in others, but no one goes completely unscathed.

Fear can manifest as defiance, procrastination, or self-doubt that you can do, be, or have something. Some may feel resigned to staying where they are now as the only way forward. People are likely to stop themselves from getting what they want without a cause/effect that’s framed as losing something vitally important — the motivational trigger. This isn’t a reference to threats, although fear-mongering has certainly been used as a menacing way of manipulating others.

Do you remember when one of your parents would tell your sibling something like, “Please clean up your toys, Sam”? (Of course, they never had to tell you — this story is about your brother.) Sam would ignore the request. So, they tried another tactic: “Sam, you love it when your room is clean. Don’t you want to see all those fancy, fast racecars lined up on your shelf?” Sam’s position on the matter didn’t change. He loved his cars, but he still wasn’t motivated to act. So, the third attempt: “Sam, please clean up — otherwise, there won’t be time to go to Nancy’s birthday party later. If you do it now, we can make it. But if you don’t, then you won’t have time to go because you’ll be cleaning your room.” If what he feared he would lose was important to him, he would finally clean his room. (If it wasn’t, even that trigger wouldn’t motivate him.) It turned out that Sam’s trigger was affiliation. Your parents knew Sam loved playing with other kids and liked being part of a group, so nothing would stop him from going to that party.

The same is true for all people, even in the workplace. For example, if someone is motivated by power, the thought of not being able to lead, participate in an authority role, or be heard as an expert would be tough to entertain. To motivate someone fitting this profile, you could offer a cause/effect such as this: “Feeling powerless and frustrated by this situation will only make it worse. However, if you decide to participate in X change process, you’ll be using your expertise to help everyone.”

This is a big warning. This kind of motivation should never, ever be framed as a threat or delivered in a threatening tone.

You can learn a lot from watching children’s behaviors. The next time you see a child having a temper tantrum, ask yourself when and how you do that as an adult. Now, you probably don’t throw yourself on the office floor and demand that someone get you a hazelnut coffee. However, everyone has an adult version of a tantrum, right? The next time it happens to you, ask yourself what you fear you’re losing: Is it power, affiliation, or achievement?

Decipher the money motivation myth

When leaders and managers are asked what they believe motivates their teams, the most common response is, of course, money. You may be wondering whether that’s true about yourself and those around you. But is it really about money? Or is there something deeper going on?

Consider the meaning of money to those in the workforce, keeping in mind that philosophies about money vary from generation to generation. Offering money as motivation isn’t always effective. Considering that a majority of your workforce is made up of GenXers and Millennials, knowing what money means to them will help you determine their priorities:

  • Baby Boomers (born 1943–1960): Money is a status symbol.
  • Generation X (born 1961–1981): Money is a means to an end.
  • Millennials (born 1982–2004): Money is today’s payoff.
  • Silent (born 1925–1942): Money is livelihood.
  • Homelanders (born 2005 and later): Too early to tell, but maybe money is livelihood as well.

As you can see, money doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. That said, not everyone in a generation thinks exactly alike, either. But being aware of general attitudes about money can give you insight into the different thought processes. Unfolding McClelland’s motivational triggers will also help you understand what money may mean to different people.

Clearly, there’s been a generational shift in mindset regarding the meaning of money. The current workforce of Millennials seeks financial means over career advancement. This jibes with their desire for a more experiential life over one spent acquiring stuff. They generate income to create a life and experiences they want, but they aren’t necessarily interested in climbing the corporate ladder as Boomers were. In general, U.S. customer spending on live experiences and events has increased, indicating that it may not be just Millennials feeling the need to live life differently. Priorities have shifted. Living an experiential life is a motivator that can fall under any of the three motivational triggers in the same way money once did.

For example, a Millennial’s deep desire for power may have more to do with the ability to control a situation and bring about a positive result at work, then have the flexibility to book their next trip to Vietnam, backpack to Machu Picchu, or swim with sharks around the Galapagos Islands. Millennials’ translation of power is making a difference but also working to fund their adventures. Boomers may have the same desire to make a difference, but trends show that material possessions are more of their focus — a new house, a new car, or another item that projects the persona of success and power. The motivation may be the same (power), but the context of money, its use, how much is needed, and the projection of power are very different. So, while power may be a Millennial’s dominant motivator, money is secondary in creating their lives.

This shift from acquiring stuff to having experiences will continue to change the trends in workplace incentives. Consumer reports will indicate how deeply these desires grow within the culture. Stay tuned — and stay informed. What people spend their money on will tell you what their motivation may be. Think of it this way: Ask what a person wants to do with the money they make. Their answer will tell you whether they are motivated by power, affiliation, or achievement.