Basic Motivational Needs – The Source of Intrinsic Motivation

Money, position, title, job security, using best skills, career opportunities, association with idealized individuals, brands or purpose, lifestyle, location – the list of things that inspire and influence people when considering where they work and what sort of role they want can be quite long. And it very often has people making choices that end up not being satisfying for them because they didn’t understand what drove them. This is a normal part of the human condition and greatly contributes to disappointment, disengagement, poor performance and instability.

There are many theories of human motivational needs and management. Self-determination theory is largely evidence-based and pretty useful despite not adequately acknowledging some deficiencies in intrinsic motivation as a primary tool, and, on the other end of the scale and despite not being on-trend, reinforcement theory acknowledges how people naturally learn from the externally-imposed consequences of their experiences. Maslow is a favourite for many, but faces basic challenges – neurobiologically, the need for safety is underpinned by the strongest and fastest single synapse in the brain, and so trumps everything else – this means safety should be at the bottom of his pyramid. At the apex, I have no idea how self-actualisation can be applied in most workplaces, especially as most of us have no idea what it is for us. In Neuropsychotherapy, Klaus Grawe, building on the work of others and backed, for all elements on survival and all-but-one on neuroscience, identified 4 basic needs underpinned by another as the drivers of motivation. They are not distinct, commonly overlapping, influencing and compounding each other, with the goal of motivation being their fulfilment – or, more technically, resolving incongruences between felt need level and its current satisfaction. In my work with high and low performing employees I have found they underpin workplace behavioural patterns and action-choices at all levels. Here’s a quick overview.

Safety – Fear response

Grawe identified the need for safety as the strongest driver of behaviour, as, evolutionarily, it had to be. The ancestors who did not see and react to the sabre-toothed tiger quickly enough didn’t become ancestors – they became lunch. The single synapse between the amygdala and the hypothalamus is the fastest and strongest in the brain, and the prevalence of anxiety and other fear-related states in our society attests to the power of the network it triggers, including its influence over well-being, capability and behaviours. As it was thousands of years ago, safety is physical, psychological and present-biased, and individuals will seek to achieve it, or be distressed if they cannot. Our response to safety threats is through the fight/flight/freeze options, irrespective of whether the threat is real or imagined, big or small (objectively), temporary or long-lasting, psychological, social or physical, and especially of whether that response is appropriate or helpful (it is often neither).

Connection (from Attachment)

Attachment theory was explored by Bowlby in the mother/child relationship, and has been associated with specific brain regions, functions and chemicals very similar to those involved in the sensing and responses to physical pain (which is why similar drugs alleviate the symptoms of both). For the workplace, attachment’s associations with the primary caregiver / infant relationship is not appropriate, and we don’t see it as a reasonable responsibility for employers even if translated to adults (which, in common psychology, it isn’t).

Rather, we prefer the word connection, as it recognises the genetically encoded need for building safe, trusting, stable and supportive relationships, along with the deep pain of isolation and exclusion, without placing an unrealistic burden on workplace social systems. In our research, connection is the best-satisfied basic need, with small (but common) variances and low standard deviations, suggesting that people either find a level of connection that works for them – or leave.

What to do: Enable people to form the number and types of relationships that they are drawn to. This will vary from person to person, so, unless it adversely affects others or performance, allow individuals to manage this for themselves as much as possible. Socialising opportunities are great, but where people feel forced to interact with more people, or with greater intimacy, the need for connection quickly becomes over-satisfied, prompting social withdrawal. We also see this with line managers whose days are constantly interrupted and who experience continual (social) pressure from all sides.

Task Reward (from The avoidance of pain and pursuit of pleasure)

The motivation systems, along with the fear response, noted previously can be directly linked to the basic need identified by Grawe as the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. Like all animals, we are attracted to what feels good and away from what feels bad. For survival, that’s why high energy foods are enjoyable and stepping on a nail isn’t – our basic sensory and motivational (including learning) systems guide us to do the things that help us to survive.

To make this most useful in a workplace context, I have identified it as task reward, acknowledging that people are attracted by action choices that are enjoyable and put off by those that are distressing or simply unrewarding. Our research has shown this need to be the most unsatisfied, with employees often bored by task repetition, low or intrinsically-meaningless challenges and low mesolimbic dopamine pathway activation (as anticipation or reward).

What to do: Up the reward to up the challenge and effort. Create learning opportunities and task variety. Minimise boredom, repetition and easy, unrewarding work. Design roles, tasks, careers and employee experiences with this in mind.

Empowerment (from Orientation and Control)

Grawe defined this area as orientation and control. Orientation is the need for understanding and sense-making that allows us to gain familiarity and confidence. Imagine coming to work everyday to find your desk moved, peers replaced, computer reprogrammed – life would be intolerable. As a survival mechanism, we need to be able to take things for granted to down-regulate the fear network and to allow the pre-frontal cortex to concentrate on one thing at a time. Lack of orientation quickly sees employees becoming overwhelmed, distressed and defensive – just ask anyone involved in change management.

Control is essential for people to feel they can influence the things that influence them – its absence makes people feel helpless and they will fight to either escape this feeling or regain control one way or another. Micromanagement is an example of creating distress through taking control away, and militant unionism is a way of taking it back.

The need for orientation and control is at the heart of motivational theories that espouse competence, mastery and autonomy as core motivators at work. As an influencer of thinking in organisations, I prefer the term “empowerment”, as it inherently involves sharing of information and allowing control in a purposeful way that can include boundaries. Importantly, an employee who is not empowered cannot be fairly judged on their performance.

What to do: Inform, ask, engage. Talk about the how, what and why. Allow people to know and to contribute to their work and success. But don’t do it for them and don’t overload – too much autonomy can lead to a loss of orientation. Empowerment is about enabling and coaching, and can also include directing, but doesn’t mean interfering or creating unnecessary boundaries – that would be to disempower. Empowerment is absolutely core to employee performance, well-being and engagement, and must be a primary goal for managers. Even in the most serious of disciplinary conversations, it is always possible to partially, if not fully, empower employees, with optimal outcomes for all concerned. Don’t control – empower instead.

Identity (from Self-esteem protection and enhancement)

Grawe identified this need as self-esteem protection and enhancement, but we see it as more than that. Identity (or self-esteem protection and enhancement) does not appear to have a specific brain region or network associated with it. Rather, it seems to be born of the genetic need to fit into the tribe for survival along with the experientially learned social constructions of how that is done. In other words, while self-esteem is a primal need, how it is achieved it socially constructed and individually developed rather than hard-wired. As a social and physically weak (comparatively) species, humans need to fit in to the group to be protected by it, and so it matters what others say about us and act towards us.

People need to know they fit and where. Some are drawn to leadership, others to supporting roles, others to being seen as experts and others to feeling popular – and all will act in ways that support and reinforce that referred position and identity. Status, respect, power, loyalty and group identity all arise from this need, as does our want for positive feedback and validation. The influence of workplace culture also arises directly from it.

We also see a strong link between self-esteem and purpose, of linking actions to worthwhile outcomes, social benefits and visions of preferred futures. “I am worthy because the work I do is worth doing”, or “The work I do is meaningless… what does that say about my worth or how they feel about me?” Along with empowerment, purpose is a great enabler of superior engagement, capacity and effort, as correctly identified by some other theories of motivation.

What to do: Ensure the feedback that individuals receive is related to desirable action choices.  Ensure employees can directly link their roles and tasks to a meaningful purpose, likely associated with inspiring ideas, social good and/or a better world. Allow individuals to do things that allow them to feel personally productive, significant, respected and valued – not simply a payroll number.

Need fulfilment for Well-being

Where people feel able to act to fulfil their needs, either by doing something more, less, differently, the same or not at all (a “controllable congruence or incongruence”), they will, following the neuroscience of the motivational process described in another article, make continued or new action choices based on anticipated loses or gains attached to them in the pursuit of need fulfilment. In this way, motivation is simply the urge to make action choices aimed, directly or indirectly, at need fulfilment. That’s it, there is nothing more to motivation. If a person feels they need not act to feel fulfilled, they will not act (yes, this also explains laziness, where the reward or loss anticipation attached to an action choice is deemed not to be worth the effort required).

Where people feel unable to act to fulfil their needs to any more than a small extent (an “uncontrollable incongruence”), distress is highly likely, including fight/flight/freeze (sympathetic nervous system) responses. Responses, as enacted, can vary but for self-protection almost certainly involve fighting or withdrawing. This sees either a change in focus away from productive effort and preferred behaviours and toward regaining control of need fulfilment (or seeking revenge for being denied the opportunity), or a lowering of expectations, in turn lowering need level, and thereby reducing energy, effort and attention as part of a likely anxious or depressive state. Short term behavioural and performance issues can be expected, and in the longer term expect serious health implications.

But what about discretionary goals like salary, lifestyle and career?

There are many goals and measurements that people adopt as real and meaningful, and they are without doubt motivated toward them (to the extent their self-regulation network keeps them focused). People make decisions about jobs, employers and careers every day based on these things. But, as front-of-mind as they can be, they are comparatively weak. For example, how much would you need to be paid to work where no one is friendly, everyone hates you, you have no understanding of what goes on or why, you have no control of your role or work, where someone always comes and tells you how to do the job you already know how to do, which, by the way is meaningless, boring and doesn’t come close to using your best skills. Oh, and by the way, your workstation is directly above an active volcano that could go off at any moment.

There is, however, a way of making these otherwise comparatively weak and transient goals and felt needs much stronger. The process of internalising them, where one attaches them to a basic motivational need, perhaps as its expression in a form that can be defined and described, allows adopted goals to become more intrinsic. For example, let’s imagine an opportunity for career advancement is available, but to be a contender an employee needs to allocate discretionary time and effort – and perhaps studying costs, to gain the skills and be seen as having the dedication. If the employee links the growth in influence, respect, achievement & control with a preferred image of their future self, and so a part of the future satisfaction of their identity need, those efforts and, through academic achievement and career advancement, symbols, become internalised, and therefore attract intrinsic motivation which supports higher levels of effort, commitment and resilience.

Similarly, the efforts and sacrifices people make to support their belief systems (e.g. religious, political, social work, caring for animals and the planet) are often so large as to be all-consuming because they link, firstly to the needs of orientation and control (I need to protect myself by protecting my understanding of myself and the world), identity (I identify as a person closely linked to these causes and the values they represent and I need to know how I fit in with the smaller and greater social groups around me), and connection (I am liked, accepted and protected by people who I trust and trust me, and, through spending time with them in the process of pursuing my beliefs, I enjoy the time and effort I put in for the cause I believe in). On a neurobiological level, this level of potentially objectively irrational commitment to a belief system is all underpinned by myelinogenesis. The neural circuits (including memory, knowledge, assumptions and intuition) that are used the most often are also the strongest, so that commitment to a belief or cause not only feels so natural as to be obviously true, and that the process of disbelieving is not simply a matter of choice – it is a traumatic and/or long process that is physically difficult and uncomfortable. This combination of internalising for intrinsic motivation, along with myelinogenesis with time and thought/action frequency, can make otherwise discretionary goals intrinsically compelling. Post-modernists would describe these as constructed truths that are as powerful as any truth that may be more objectively measured.

So yes, the things offered in job ads matter because they allow people to imagine preferred lives, but the real, sustainable, productivity-and-health-predicting motivators are much more hard-wired. If you want to understand how to truly engage with and motivate the team, the levels and expressions of their basic motivational (intrinsic) needs, at non-conscious levels and in their conscious interpretation, will need to be understood and considered first.