How to Avoid Killing Motivation

THE BIG IDEA: When you know what drives you, you have insight into what motivates your employees and your customers. Calling on the research and motivational theories in behavioral psychology illuminates the answer.


You didn’t get where you are by accident. You worked hard. You assimilate new information rapidly. You stayed on your toes, capitalizing on opportunities when they arose.

And, if you’re reading this, it’s still true of you today.

Even if you’re the CEO, President, and Chairman of a multibillion dollar enterprise, you’re not resting on your prior achievements. You’re still seeking better answers and bigger ideas, looking for new ways to improve.

So what drives you? What motivates you to continually improve yourself and push towards a bigger vision for your business?

To answer this question, we start with Maslow. Maslow, as you recall, gave us the Hierarchy of Human Needs.

Maslow’s Theory of Motivation

These needs are physiological needs (hunger, thirst), safety needs (shelter), belonging needs (connection to family, friends, and colleagues), esteem needs, and self-actualization.

When you think of the Hierarchy of Needs, you probably visualize a triangle. Although that’s how it’s virtually always depicted when people refer to the hierarchy, Maslow never conceptualized it that way.

Maslow merely said that, in a general way, these human needs are prepotent, meaning that lower level needs have to be met before higher level needs can become the focus of attention.

This is very logical: you’re not going to be too invested in what people think of you (esteem needs) if you’re starving or thirsty (physiological needs). Your pride eventually breaks down when your survival is threatened.

In daily life, however, most of us are pursuing all of these human needs simultaneously.

A Different Spin on Maslow

Another psychologist, Clayton Alderfer, proposed a related theory of human needs that turns Maslow’s model on its side.

He grouped Maslow’s five levels of needs into three categories:

  1. Existence Needs (including physiological and safety needs)
  2. Relatedness Needs (including belonging and external esteem needs)
  3. Growth Needs (including internal esteem needs and self-actualization)

In Alderfer’s ERG Theory, instead of stacking the needs one on top of the other, he put them on a level playing field:


In terms of motivation, what’s important about Alderfer’s model is the direction you’re going. If your focus is progressing from existence needs to relatedness needs to growth needs, you feel satisfaction. This satisfaction will fuel your efforts in growth and self-actualization.

This assertion has been confirmed by Martin Seligman’s research. Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, has found that people feel more gratification (or lasting happiness) when they are pursuing growth while playing to their natural strengths.

If, however, your momentum is carrying you away from growth needs in the direction of relatedness needs and survival (existence needs), you feel frustration. Frustration diminishes your motivation to grow. (It also leads to the formation of bad habits.)

Motivation in the Workplace

How does this theory of motivation apply to your organization?

If you employees are not given the opportunity to grow, they may regress to satisfying relatedness needs and socialize more with colleagues (in unproductive ways).

Similarly, if the workplace doesn’t satisfy the employees’ need for social interaction, there can be an increase in focus on existence needs such as making more money or finding better working conditions.

Organizations like Google, Apple,, and Netflix are hubs for talented professionals because they support the higher needs of their employees.

Motivation in the Marketplace

Conveniently, you, your employees, and your customers are motivated by the same needs.

Any business can help customers meet their existence needs. Cult Brands go beyond existence needs by successfully creating a space for customers to belong (relatedness needs). These business also find ways to support their customers’ growth needs.

Apple creates tools for creativity and self-expression. Harley, Vans, and Linux promote freedom. The Motley Fool teaches financial independence. Personal brands like Oprah and Tony Robbins offer self empowerment.

In other words, Cult Brands capitalize on our human need for self-actualization by developing products and services that support higher-level needs.

3 Factors that Drive High Performance

Using 50 years of research in behavioral science, author Daniel Pink highlights the three elements that best motivate high performance:

  1. Autonomy: the urge to direct our own lives
  2. Mastery: the desire to continually improve at something that matters to us
  3. Purpose: the yearning to do what we do in service of something larger than ourselves

Notice that money and external reward are not on this list. Notice that all three of these motivators are related to growth needs.

In the end, needs like creativity, productivity, meaningfulness, contribution, and personal development drive performance more than anything else.

This is true for you. It is true for your employees. And yes, it is true for your customers too.

Previous Post Next Post