Harvard Business Review: Employee Motivation



Austin Walk






Back in July of 2008 the HBR released a powerful article revealing their findings after a massive, multi-corporation study on employee motivation. Common knowledge then, and common knowledge now, is the fact that employee motivation directly increases corporate productivity and revenue. Customer service, team unity, product development and every other important corporate facet is bettered as employee motivation increases. HBR attempted to define and summarize basic employee motivators and subsequently outline what management and executives can do to increase those motivators. Their findings are as follows:

First, employee motivation (ultimately human motivation) can be best understood using the findings Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria published in their 2002 book Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices. Their findings illustrate humans can be motivated by satisfying certain drives or needs. These drives are categorized into four groups:

The Drive to Acquire: a need to have things; physical items like food, clothing, shelter, cars, houses, etc. and also experiences and social status. Like travels, entertainment and promotions.

The Drive to Bond: a need to associate and feel part of a group. Love and caring is increased as the drive to bond is met, whereas loneliness and introversion when the drive is neglected.

The Drive to Comprehend: a need to make sense of the world around us. The need to acquire knowledge and put that knowledge to application.

The Drive to Defend: a need to protect our property and loved ones. It is a need to promote justice and equality.

Biologically, we are motivated as these four drives are met. Thus, if these drives are met in the workplace, the same effect will result; employee motivation.

The brilliance in the findings offered by the HBR is the data they gathered as they tried to pinpoint specific things managers and executives could implement – company wide – to pull the “levers” on these drives. This is what they found:

1 – The drive to acquire is best met with reward systems. By linking performance with specific employee defined rewards, the drive to acquire is met.

2 – The drive to bond is best met with company culture. Genuine leadership, teamwork, kindness and a positive, non-contradictory environment that gives employees and management opportunities to develop camaraderie meets this drive.

3 – The drive to comprehend is best met with job design. Creating meaningful, interesting, and challenging jobs leaves employees feeling satisfied. Continual training, education, and opportunities to practice will empower employees, motivating them as they feel masters of their workplace.

4 – The drive to protect is best met with fair processes. Trustworthy and transparent processes for performance management, employee evaluation, and resource allocation leave employees feeling like they can count on their company, satisfying their need to protect.

The biggest takeaway for us at Simple Science was the fact that the most effective approach to satisfy these drives, and increase motivation, is a holistic approach. Individually targeting a drive, such as implementing a reward system, is grand, but without also addressing the three other needs, will be ineffective. They took a corporation ranked in the 50th percentile for employee motivation, and after an improvement of job design (meeting the drive to comprehend) found a 5% increase in motivation. After enhancing and address the three other drives, and they found an additional 21% increase in employee motivation.

Similarly to an engine running on all cylinders, employee motivation works the same. You can tune and enhance all of your cylinders, but if one is left neglected, not running strong, it will implement the entire performance of your engine. The same can be said with human behavior and satisfying all four of our drives. As managers and executives, your influence and opportunity to meet the needs of your employees is serious. Take the time to holistically approach your team’s drives and create a truly motivated and performing organization.