Part 1: Managing Motivation through Drives and Needs - Principles of Management

Ultimately motivation begins with the employee’s own drives and needs.

Drives and Needs

Drives are instinctive tendencies to seek particular goals or maintain internal stability. Drives are hardwired in the brain (that is, everyone has the same drives), and they most likely exist to help the species survive.

Needs are mostly conscious deficiencies that energize or trigger behaviors to satisfy those needs. For the most part we are aware of our needs, whereas drives operate under the surface to generate our emotions and sometimes direct behavior. Needs are produced from our innate drives, but they are also strengthened or weakened through learning and social forces such as culture and childhood upbringing. We will find out how needs and drives relate to each other after introducing the world’s most popular motivation theory: Maslow’s needs hierarchy.


Maslow’s needs hierarchy theory is probably the one theory in this textbook that almost everyone has heard about. Developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow in the 1940s, the model has been applied in almost every human pursuit, from marketing products to rehabilitating prison inmates.

This incredible popularity is rather odd considering that the theory has little research support. So why do we introduce you to Maslow’s theory? First, elements of the model are worth noting for motivating employees. Second, most managers you meet will mention Maslow’s model, so you need to be informed about the theory—and be able to correct your colleagues’ misperceptions about it.

Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy

Maslow’s Needs Hierarchy

Maslow’s needs hierarchy organizes dozens of different needs into five basic categories arranged in the hierarchy shown in Figure above. Physiological needs (for food, air, water, shelter, and the like) are at the bottom of the hierarchy. Next are safety needs—the need for a secure and stable environment and the absence of pain, threat, or illness. Belongingness includes the need for love, affection, and interaction with other people.

Esteem includes self-esteem through personal achievement as well as social esteem through recognition and respect from others. At the top of the hierarchy is self-actualization , which represents the need for self-fulfillment—a sense that one’s potential has been realized. In addition to these five, Maslow describes the need to know and need for aesthetic beauty as two needs that do not fit within the hierarchy.

Needs hierarchy theory says that people are motivated by several needs at the same time, but the strongest source is the lowest unsatisfied need. As the person satisfies a lower-level need, the next higher need in the hierarchy becomes the primary motivator and remains so even if never satisfied. Physiological needs are initially the most important, and people are motivated to satisfy them first.

As they become gratified, safety needs emerge as the strongest motivator. As safety needs are satisfied, belongingness needs become most important, and so forth. The exception to this need fulfillment process is self-actualization; as people experience self-actualization, they desire more rather than less of this gratification. Thus while the bottom four groups are deficiency needs because they become activated when unfulfilled, self- actualization is known as a growth need because it continues to develop even when fulfilled.

Limitations of Maslow’s Theory As we warned earlier, the accuracy of Maslow’s needs hierarchy theory does not live up to its popularity. The seven categories of needs provide a reasonably good list for most managers to remember, but studies have found that they don’t capture all needs. The theory assumes that need priorities shift over months or years, whereas the importance of a particular need likely changes more quickly with the situation.

But the most serious limitation of Maslow’s needs hierarchy is its assumption that everyone has the same needs hierarchy. Research has revealed that this is a false assumption. People actually have different needs hierarchies tied to their personal values. Needs are conscious deficiencies produced from innate drives but strengthened or weakened through learning and social forces such as culture and childhood upbringing.

As a result, some people place belongingness at the pinnacle; others view status as the most important. Furthermore, studies have reported that the general needs hierarchy in some cultures is different from the needs hierarchy in other cultures.

Management Implications of Maslow’s Theory Critical parts of Maslow’s model may have failed the reality test, but we can take away the following recommendations from Maslow’s writing as well as subsequent research on employee needs:

  1. Employees have different needs at different times.
    Everyone has a hierarchy of needs, but each person’s hierarchy is different. The practical implication is that people value different things at different times. One employee might prefer time off, whereas another might prefer more pay. Managers need to carefully understand the needs of their employees and adjust rewards and other performance outcomes accordingly.
  2. Employees have several interdependent needs, not just one dominant need. One of Maslow’s most important breakthroughs was to emphasize that needs should be understood holistically, not separately. Managers must therefore remember that employees are motivated by a cluster of needs, not just one need. Thus managers must consider the whole person rather than simplistically label each person in terms of one need (for example, Julie wants a social environment, Liam is the status climber).
  3. At some point, most employees want to achieve their full potential (self-actualization). Throughout his career, Maslow emphasized that people are naturally motivated to reach their potential (self-actualization), and that organizations and societies need to be structured to help people continue and develop this motivation. The recommendation here is that managers must strive for Maslow’s vision of enlightened management because the strongest and most sustained motivation tends to occur when employees try to fulfill their need for self-actualization.
  4. Employee needs are influenced by values and norms . Maslow was one of the first motivation scholars to recognize that higher-order needs are shaped to some extent by the norms and values of the team, organization, and society in which the individual lives.

Consequently, managers can adjust employee motivation and effort by reshaping these norms and values. For example, by encouraging more performance-oriented team norms, managers can strengthen team members’ self-actualization needs. These principles guided some of the steps taken by Ben Salzmann and his management team to transform ACUITY into a high-performance organization.

The opening story to this described an organization that was oppressive. Salzmann’s team removed the chimes, introduced job sharing and flexible work schedules, allowed food and drinks, encouraged a casual dress code, established summer hours (Friday afternoons off), installed a fitness facility, beefed up the company pension plan, added nursing rooms for mothers, brought in occasional lunchtime entertainment (including a Buddy Holly play), and improved communication through town hall meetings with all 800 staff members.

They also created a work environment that allowed people to self-actualize by delegating more responsibility. For instance, several committees representing employees throughout the company reviewed and recommended ways to improve the insurer. Maslow probably would have said that ACUITY has become a model of enlightened management.

Different Needs Hierarchies? These UBS Warburg employees in Chicago seem to be enjoying each other’s company, suggesting that they are experiencing some fulfillment of their belongingness needs. But do they all have the same needs hierarchy? Maslow’s well-known theory claims they do, but evidence now suggests that needs hierarchies vary from one person to the next due to their different value systems. Thus to understand what motivates employees, managers need to understand the values that employees hold dearest.


Several decades ago psychologist David McClelland expanded on Maslow’s idea that need strength is reinforced or weakened by personal values and social influences ( culture, norms, and so on). Specifically, McClelland suggested that need strength is reinforced through childhood learning, parental styles, and social norms. He paid attention to three learned needs:
achievement, power, and affiliation.

  • Need for achievement (nAch): People with a strong need for achievement (nAch) want to accomplish reasonably challenging goals through their own efforts. They prefer working alone rather than in teams, and they choose tasks with a moderate degree of risk (neither too easy nor impossible to complete). High nAch people also desire unambiguous feedback and recognition for their success. Successful entrepreneurs tend to have a high nAch.
  • Need for affiliation (nAff): Need for affiliation (nAff) refers to a desire to seek approval from others, conform to their wishes and expectations, and avoid conflict and confrontation.
    People with a strong nAff try to project a favorable image of themselves and tend to actively support others and try to smooth out workplace conflicts. Managers must have a relatively low need for affiliation so that their choices and actions are not biased by a personal need for approval.
  • Need for power (nPow): People with a high need for power (nPow) want to exercise control over others and are concerned about maintaining their leadership positions. Those who enjoy their power to advance personal interests have personalized power.

Others mainly have a high need for socialized power because they desire power as a means to help others. Effective leaders have a high need for socialized rather than personalized power. McClelland developed training programs that taught participants to increase their need for achievement. Trainees practiced writing achievement-oriented stories and engaged in achievement-oriented behaviors in business games.

They also completed a detailed achievement plan for the next two years and formed a reference group with other trainees to maintain their newfound achievement motivation style. Some companies also create a workplace environment that tries to strengthen the need for achievement. Consider General Electric (GE), the conglomerate that operates everything from aircraft engine manufacturing to television programming.

Under CEO Jack Welch (and continuing under current CEO Jeffrey Immelt), GE managers have been rewarded for fact-based bottom-line numbers. They are grilled on weekly and monthly results. Routinely the bottom 10 percent of managers are culled, making room for more people who strive for better performance results. McClelland’s learned needs theory repeats the point that a person’s needs can be strengthened or weakened with experience (reinforcement) and social influences.

The lesson here is that managers can strengthen or weaken employees’ need for achievement, power, and affiliation, such as by supporting an achievement-oriented culture, rewarding those who demonstrate achievement orientation, and hiring coworkers who developed a strong achievement orientation in their upbringing.


Motivation experts have mostly abandoned needs hierarchy theories. However, due to recent breakthrough discoveries in brain research, they are paying close attention to the role of innate drives and how those drives shape human need through social influences. Four-drive theory , which was recently introduced by Harvard Business School professors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, captures many of these recent discoveries.

Earlier we said that drives are instinctive or innate tendencies to seek particular goals or maintain internal stability. Based on their review of existing research, Lawrence and Nohria identified four drives that seem to apply to everyone:

  • Drive to acquire: This is the drive to seek, take, control, and retain objects and personal experiences. The drive to acquire extends beyond basic food and water; it includes the need for relative status and recognition in society. Thus it is the foundation of competition and the basis of our need for esteem.
  • Drive to bond: This is the drive to form social relationships and develop mutual caring commitments with others. Research indicates that people invest considerable time and effort in forming and maintaining relationships without any special circumstances or ulterior motives. The drive to bond motivates people to cooperate and consequently is a fundamental ingredient in the success of organizations and the development of societies.
  • Drive to learn: This is the drive to satisfy our curiosity, to know and understand ourselves and the environment around us. When observing something that is inconsistent with or beyond our current knowledge, we experience a tension that motivates us to close that information gap. The drive to learn is related to the self-actualization need described earlier.
  • Drive to defend: This drive creates a “fight-or-flight” response in the face of personal danger. The drive to defend goes beyond protecting our physical self. It includes defending our relationships, our acquisitions, and our belief systems.

The drive to defend is always reactive—it is triggered by threat. In contrast, the other three drives are always proactive-we actively seek to improve our acquisitions, relationships, and knowledge. All four drives are fixed in our brains through evolution. They are also independent of each other: One drive is not inherently inferior or superior to another drive. Four-drive theory also states that these four drives are a complete set—no other innate drives are excluded from the model.

Another key feature is that all of the drives except the drive to defend are proactive, meaning that we regularly try to fulfill them. Thus any notion that a drive is fulfilled is temporary at best. How do these four drives motivate us? Basically, our brain uses these four drives to quickly evaluate and assign emotions to information received through our senses. Suppose you learn that your boss has been promoted and an outsider has been hired to fill the vacant position.

This sort of event likely triggers both the emotions of worry and curiosity. The drive to defend generates your worry about how the new manager will affect your comfortable work routine, whereas the drive to learn generates your curiosity about what the new boss looks and acts like. The key point here is that the four innate drives determine which emotions are triggered in each situation.

Four-drive theory states that neither drives nor the emotions they produce instinctively determine our motivation or behavior. Instead, as Figure below illustrates, we use our mental skill set—our logic and intelligence—to consciously decide how to sort out and act on the emotional signals generated through our drives. This mental skill set relies on our social norms, personal values, and past experience to decide the best course of action.

For instance, you might be curious about your new boss, but social norms prevent you from being too snoopy. You might also be worried about changes the new boss will create, and your past experience motivates you to take specific steps to address that threat. Where do individual needs fit into this model? Need strength is produced from our drives in the context of our personal values, social norms, and past experience.

A person’s need for status (esteem) is based on the drive to acquire, but the priority that people give to status depends on their values, as well as the immediate surrounding culture and norms. Some people have a strong need for status because they were raised to value status, and because they currently work in organizations that reward those with higher status. In other words, the strongest needs are determined from a combination of the emotions generated and the person’s values, social norms, and past experience.

Four-Drive Theory of Motivation

Four-Drive Theory of Motivation

The mental skill set not only prioritizes needs but also translates and channels the experienced emotions into effort and behavior. People have unique values, experiences, and awareness of social norms, which shape how they react to their drive-based emotions.

One person might be very forward when curious or defensive, whereas another individual experiencing the same emotions might be more circumspect and diplomatic. Both employees have the same drives and, in this example, experience similar emotions and needs. Yet they are motivated to act differently based on their unique values, experiences, and norm expectations.

Management Implications of Four-Drive Theory Lawrence and Nohria offer managers the following advice to apply four-drive theory: Ensure that individual jobs and workplaces provide a balanced opportunity to fulfill the drives to acquire, bond, learn, and defend.

There are really two key recommendations here. The first is that everyone in the workplace needs to regularly fulfill all four drives, so companies with highly motivated employees create a workplace where all four drives can be nourished. These firms provide sufficient rewards, learning opportunities, social interaction, and so forth for all employees. ACUITY developed a more motivated workforce by applying this first recommendation.

Specifically, it increased opportunities for social interaction (drive to bond), expanded training programs and learning opportunities through employee involvement (drive to learn), introduced a more performance-oriented reward system (drive to acquire), and minimized the previous risks of layoffs (drive to defend) through its increased profitability and growth.

The second recommendation from four-drive theory is that these four drives must be kept in “balance”; that is, organizations should avoid too much or too little opportunity to fulfill one drive at the expense of others. The reason for this advice is that the four drives balance each other. An organization that energizes the drive to acquire (such as through a highly competitive workplace) without the drive to bond may eventually suffer from organizational politics and dysfunctional conflict.

Change and novelty in the workplace will aid the drive to learn, but too much will trigger the drive to defend to such an extent that employees become territorial and resistant to change. Creating a workplace that supports the drive to bond can, at extreme levels, undermine the diversity and constructive debate required for effective decision making.

Sony’s recent woes seem to illustrate the challenges that occur when all four drives are not in balance. The Japanese company, which led the electronics world a decade ago with its Walkman and Playstation innovations, is now struggling to keep up with competitors.

One reason for the current difficulties is Sony’s hypercompetitive culture in which engineers are encouraged to outdo each other rather than work together. This competitive culture feeds employees’ drive to acquire, but the lack of balance with the drive to bond leads to infighting and information hoarding. For instance, competitive rivalries within Sony delayed the company’s launch of a digital music player and online music service to compete against Apple’s iPod and iTunes music Web site.

Overall, four-drive theory offers potentially valuable understanding of employee motivation as well as ways to maximize that motivation.

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