Which is Better, Rewards or Blame? Try Neither

When you know what drives you, you have insight into what motivates your teams and your customers. Calling on the research and motivational theories in behavioral psychology illuminates the answer that goes beyond the traditional managerial approach of driving people through rewarding and blaming them.

First things first, 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 more valuable 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. 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. But 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.

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

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:

  • Existence Needs (including physiological and safety requirements)
  • Relatedness Needs (including belonging and external esteem needs)
  • 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 vital 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 satisfied. This satisfaction will fuel your efforts in growth and self-actualization.

Martin Seligman’s research has confirmed this assertion. 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.

How does this theory of motivation apply to your organization?

If people are not allowed to grow, they may regress to satisfying relatedness needs. 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.

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 businesses also find ways to support their customers’ growth needs. In other words, Cult Brands capitalize on our human need for self-actualization by developing products and services that support higher-level needs.

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

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

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.

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