Part 2: Drive Theory and Happiness

In this article, part two of my trilogy on career satisfaction, I want to look at the basic question of motivation. It’s a big question. But viewed through the lens of Drive Theory (Driven, Lawrence and Nohria, 2002) we can see that the drive to acquire when balanced with the drive to bond and the drive to know, can lead to a satisfactory career, and a satisfactory life.

Most people pursue careers to meet various needs whether or not they are aware of what those needs are. Not everyone is intent on having a satisfactory career – for many, it’s just a job. And many careerists may become disenchanted. But everyone is motivated to do something. Why?

We are all homo economicus and consequently engage in some activity as a medium of exchange to satisfy some basic needs. Consequently, belief systems have been built on the idea that motivation is an the economic imperative – money motivates. But does it? Even in 2010 most senior executives still believe in this axiom. But the more behaviouralists inquired into how to influence others’ behaviours the more interest there was in fundamental motivation.

Much has been written about basic human motivation, from fundamental psychological pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain (consider Skinner and behaviour moderation) to elaborate theories of contingency motivation such as expectancy theory.

But first things first. There is no such thing as motivation without behaviour. The desire to do something is only an idea or an intention. Only behaviour is evidence of motivation. As Adler famously said, trust only action. Action indicates a response to something even though the actual motivation may not be known.

Everyone it seems is familiar with Abraham Maslow’s classic work, the Hierarchy of Needs, even though that famous father of modern psychology never proposed it as a substantial theory, merely as a proposition. But it stuck. For all its flaws. Most remember the five level pyramidal model with physiological needs at the base and esteem needs and self-actualisation at the top two layers. More current research is finding resonation in the role of emotion in the effect on motivation and behaviour. Motivation is not a rational process; it is emotional, sometimes mediated by rational thought. Daniel Goleman’s books on emotional intelligence (a term first coined by Salovey and Mayer) brought a lot of attention to the role of emotion management in interpersonal and life effectiveness and perhaps as importantly to how evolutionary psychology can explain how we are affected by, and can affect, our emotional behaviour.

Harvard professors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria conducted an extensive enquiry into both the fields of Evolutionary Psychology and motivation theory and have devised a new overarching theory of motivation. In their 2002 book, Driven, Lawrence introduces the four drives of fundamental human behaviour. First, the drive to acquire which is to seek, take control, and retain objects and personal experiences. These extend beyond basic food and shelter but they also include enhancing one’s self concept through relative status and recognition in society. The drive to acquire is insatiable – meeting one’s basic physiological needs is not sufficient; one’s core psychological mission is to achieve a higher position than others.

A second drive is the drive to bond: to form social relationships and develop mutual caring commitments with others; with parents, a mate, then the family, clan, village. This drive to bond motivates people to cooperate and consequently is a fundamental ingredient in the success of organisations and the development of societies.

The third drive is the drive to satisfy our curiosity, to know and understand ourselves and the environment around us. The human brain is insatiable in this. We are not only homo sapiens, the species which knows, but we are also homo sapiens sapiens, the species that knows it knows. Deprived of stimulus people crave almost any information no matter how trivial: the synapses must be tickled. We are able to formulate questions, need to ask questions, and even conceive abstract ideas and solutions. And so the drive to know is related to Maslow’s higher order needs of self-actualisation.

The fourth drive, which may be thought of as a reactive drive as compared to the first three which might described as proactive drives, is the drive to defend. This is obviously related to the fight or flight need to protect ourselves physically in the face of personal danger. But it turns out that the drive to defend, this reactive drive, goes beyond physical; it extends to defending social identity in the sense of interdependent relationships, to our acquisitions and to our knowledge and belief systems.

So Drive Theory seems to provide a much clearer understanding of the role emotional intelligence and evolutionary psychology plays in employee motivation and behaviour and so on careers. Drive Theory is a complete set in that all four; certainly the three proactive drives are simultaneously needed to be satisfied in human beings. They are seen to be segregated but in the end are not without some sense of balance. Some drives may provide the means to satisfy other drives. For example, human beings may be driven to acquire property and adornments, especially in the early stages of their career and lives, in order to attract a mate and so satisfy the drive to bond. The drive to learn seems to be innate but may also serve as a means for economic success: drive to acquire. Through education and learning we position ourselves to have more attractive careers and more capacity or potential to earn, and so doing, attract a more desirable mate. So what we see here is that people may bias themselves at different stages of their lives to one or more of these three fundamental drives; they are not conscious of it but they are nonetheless behaving in response to one or more of these three drives.

In the early stages of a career the drive to acquire may be the most compelling part, both in terms of material acquisition and the symbols that material acquisitions represent for self-esteem – the greater titles, the corner office, higher income and the other trappings associated with higher income. Through acquisition we seek to demonstrate our self-esteem to others among our acquaintances in the community, in the tribe. For some that’s the only measure of career success; for others it is only a partial measure. The need to bond, to be engaged with others in a social context may be very compelling. And so people will manage and organise their careers in such a fashion as to enhance and satisfy that particular drive. The drive to know, for some people, maybe many people, will provoke a career or an opportunity in which they can demonstrate their intellectual prowess, to add to their knowledge and contribute to the knowledge of others. And so, having a career which allows them to satisfy this particular drive to know may be compelling.

Towards the end of a person’s career or stages of life, having become more mature and more aware, they may come to realise that they have distorted their careers through the pursuit of one drive over the other two. And so people often take on a more balanced outlook. If, which is the more general case, they devoted a lot of their energy to the drive to acquire in the earlier stages of their career they may shift in these behaviour patterns in the later stages to satisfy the drive to bond and the drive to know. They may want to acquire more knowledge, to put their knowledge in perspective; to welcome the tension of doubt; to write a book. They discover they want to pass on their knowledge that they have acquired. That is why people in their more senior stages of a career cultivate relationships with others, seek out mentees, more junior people that they can guide coach train and influence. In retirement people often speak of the ‘good old days’, when they used to work. What they miss is the relationships they had then.

So in summation a satisfactory career may in the end be a result of a person’s growing awareness of the fundamental drivers in their psychological make-up. A satisfactory career satisfies through growth in self-esteem seeking balance in the drive to acquire, the need to have satisfactory relationships with other people and the need to learn and continuously challenge our minds and transfer that knowledge to others.

Is your career satisfying these proactive drives? Or are you busy defending your position?