Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

A new model of motivation and its relevance for project managers

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Many managers struggle with the question of how to motivate their team members effectively. A recent Harvard Business Review article entitled, Employee Motivation: A Powerful New Model, by Nitin Nohria, Boris Groysberg and Linda Eling-Lee describes a new model that provides concrete steps which organisations and individual managers can take towards improving team motivation. The model is based on analysis of data gathered from a large number of  employees across many organisations.  Projects are temporary organisational structures so  the model is of potential interest to project managers: hence this  annotated summary of the article.

The authors start with the premise that people’s choices are guided by four basic human drives which were described in a book written by Nohria and Lawrence in 2002 (see a review of the book here).  In brief, these are the drives to:

  • Acquire: To obtain tangible items (things such as a car, house etc.) and intangibles (such as respect, status etc.) .
  • Bond: To seek membership in groups (e.g. work teams) and form connections with individuals (e.g. friendships)
  • Comprehend: To understand the world and thus develop a personally meaningful and coherent view of one’s social and work environment.
  • Defend: Protect what is important (to the individual) and ensure fairness (to those who form a part of one’s world)

The authors make the point that these drives are independent, and that one must address all of them in order to motivate employees fully. This is interesting because it implies, for instance, that people cannot be motivated by money alone. This point may be obvious to some, but I know some managers who believe that financial rewards alone are enough to motivate employees and team members.

The authors suggest some organisational levers that may be used to fulfil each of the aforementioned drives. These are:

  • Reward System:  A well-designed reward system that includes equitable remuneration and  transparent, performance-related bonuses can be used to address the drive to acquire.
  • Corporate/Team Culture: A collegial work environment. which encourages openness, camaraderie,   and team work will foster a sense of belonging in employees / team members. This can fulfil the drive to bond.
  • Job Design: The drive to comprehend, or understand one’s place in the world can be fulfilled by engagement in a job that is interesting, challenging and meaningful. The employee or team member should clearly understand the importance of his or her job, and where it fits in the big scheme of things.
  • Performance management and resource allocation: Any system that includes performance-related rewards must be accompanied by an transparent and trustworthy processes to assess performance. Further, any resource allocation (for projects or other corporate initiatives) must be done in a way that is based on the merits of the endeavour, completely free of bias.  Performance assessment, through its effect on individual and team rewards impacts the employees drive to acquire and bond; whereas the resource allocation, through its effect on projects impacts the drive to comprehend (i.e. people’s jobs). Hence these two offer employees ways to defend things that are important to them (or things that fulfil other drives).

Granted, project managers do not always have control over all (or even any!) of the organisational levers listed above. However, the authors’ research indicates that employees more often than not understand the limited influence that  their direct managers have on these levers. Hence, most employees only expect their managers to do their best to fulfil all four motivational drives within the  organisational constraints that are imposed from above. That is, employees are pretty realistic about what their managers can and can’t do. This is good news for project managers because it means that team members generally do not expect miracles from them! Examples of specific things a project manager might do include:

  • Offer more autonomy and learning opportunities to team members.
  • Promote team bonding through joint activities.
  • Foster relationships based on trust within the team.
  • Recognise achievement through public acknowledgement and other non-financial means (for example, by informing the senior management)
  • Raise the profile of the team in the larger organisation.

…and so on. There are ways to tweak organisational levers, even if one doesn’t quite have the muscle to yank them.

To summarise: the article outlines a model of motivation that is built on research in biology and psychology. The model is based on the need to address four basic human drives – i.e. the drives to acquire, bond, comprehend and defend. Managers need to  understand that all four drives must be fulfilled in order to motivate employees fully. Employees generally recognise that their direct managers have limited control over  organisational culture and reward systems. However, they expect their managers to do their best to motivate teams within these constraints. In my opinion the article is worth a read (regardless of the validity of the model) because it emphasises that motivation involves more than financial reward and, even more importantly,  it encourages front-line managers to take an active role in motivating their teams.

Written by K

October 6, 2008 at 8:55 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Nice Summary! just finished the original article on HBR and found your very easy to digest!

    Hazem R.

    July 16, 2014 at 11:09 pm

    • Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. Much appreciated!




      July 16, 2014 at 11:12 pm

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