Understanding Motives is Central to Successful Leadership

“When I’m inspired, I get excited because I can’t wait to see what I’ll come up with next.” – Dolly Parton

People who are emotionally engaged in their work perform at higher levels than those who aren’t. When we bring emotional energy to our work, we increase commitment, creativity, productivity, and cooperation. Our emotions generate strength and energy.

Leaders who have an accurate understanding of motives are more frequently successful than those who do not. But pinpointing peoples’ motivational needs and inspiring them can be like panning for gold in a river: What you’re looking for is usually below the waterline. In fact, most people are not aware completely of what their motives are.

Regardless of culture, gender, or ethnicity, people are driven by three motives: achievement, affiliation, and influence.

1. Achievement.

People driven by this motive like to test themselves against their environment and attain standards of excellence. They thrive on outperforming the norm. They find ways to perform more efficiently, to invent new ways of doing things, or to create “breakthrough” products.

2. Affiliation.

Those who are driven by this motive are most concerned about the quality of their relationships. They enter into relationships for the sake of the relationship — not for gain or influence. They are not as concerned with the quantity of relationships but with how harmonious and reliable their relationships are. They are likely to be upset when there are disruptions to relationships.

3. Influence.

People motivated by influence are concerned about their impact on other people — convincing someone of their point of view or empowering others around them. They thrive on making a difference and finding ways to connect with and influence powerful people.

Healthy adults in all cultures possess all three motivations to one degree or another. However, one is usually dominant for you, and it is critical to know which one this is. Knowing what is driving you can help you grow as a manager and leader. Failing to know can be costly.

An achievement-oriented manager may fail to understand that his staff does not share his own ambitions — they may be more driven by teamwork, for example. In your effort to create a department of results-oriented individuals, you may alienate many of the solid contributors in your department who value good relations with their peers more than awards and recognition.

Leaders need to know what their own motivational drivers are. If one continues to communicate, blind to the underlying motive, it can only alienate others.

How can we get a better grip on our own motives? First, honestly ask yourself: “When was I recently energized and why? How much of my frustration with my colleague is due to the fact that we have different motivational needs?” Look closely at events in your life that trigger strong emotional reaction to understand what drives your behavior. Also, a mentor or spouse can give you some insight into your motives.

To take the next step, you need to identify what motivates others and create emotionally engaging conditions for them.

Imagine that a member of your team named “John” is not performing well but you like him as a friend. You find reasons to explain away John’s under-performance — he has contributed a lot in the past, he is having difficulty with his teenager, and he has never “fit in” with this team. But you can’t give him the feedback he needs to do a better job. Meanwhile, two other members of your team inform you that they are fed up with working in a department where lax work standards are accepted and they are requesting transfers. In this example, you put so much emphasis on maintaining good relations with John — falling back on your affiliation motive — that you failed to create an environment where achievement-oriented workers can feel motivated.

People with achievement motives are engaged by a clear standard of excellence; clearly delineated roles and responsibilities; and concrete, timely feedback from a credible source. Those with affiliation motives are engaged when they can accomplish things with people they know and trust. And the influence motive is activated when people are allowed to have an impact, impress those in power, or beat competitors.

Uncover your own motives and understand the impact they have on your behavior. Uncover the motives of your colleagues and staff, and create an environment that is emotionally compelling for them. And help them to channel that energy.

(Ed. Note: Dennis Woodruff is the vice president of Hay/McBer, a company that measures leadership characteristics. This article is based on the work of the late David McClelland, former chairman of Hay/McBer — and it is one of thousands of articles about leadership, management, and business success that are available on “the Instant Consultant” CD from Executive Excellence Publishing.)