Self Preservation Over Significance
Why is it sometimes so hard to get something done with a group of people? Everyone seems to have their own agenda. It is difficult to get everyone on the same page, with the same motivation, driving towards a common purpose.
Recently, a good friend of mine gave a very insightful answer: “Because “Delivery” follows ‘Significance’, which in turns follows ‘Self Preservation’.”
In this blog entry we will take a closer look at the implications of this statement. What role does self preservation and significance play in the participatory framework for organizational delivery. We will examen how this insight helps us become better people, and also make us better managers.
Lastly, we will see how some of Daniel Pink’s insights (What Motivates Us) applies to this topic when we use this knowledge to drive delivery for our projects, teams and organizations.
Self Preservation and Significance
In 1954 Abraham Maslow wrote a book called: Motivation and Personality. In this book he built on his 1943 paper: A Theory of Human Motivation, in which he communicates a psychological theory for a hierarchy of needs to be satisfied for human motivation. In the theory he makes the case for physiological needs to take precedence over aspects such as self-actualization for the developmental evolution of human beings.
Now, without going into the details of Maslow’s theories, and at the risk of over simplifying this enormous insight, one is nevertheless compelled to review some of its aspects for the benefit of trying to understand the behaviours and motivations of our fellow human beings in an organizational setting. As managers, it will be easier to manage if we know what motivates people, wouldn’t it?
It can easily be implied that the Maslow Hierarchy of Needs is almost a developmental rung ladder that “civilized” people can climb towards being better human beings. Better people should make better companies, that deliver better. So, to get the ball rolling first we need to be sure to satisfy our employees’ primal needs: Breathing, drinking, sleeping etc. (salary, coffee, comfortable chairs, sunlight). This is followed by our tribal needs for love and association (social clubs, staff golf days, company t-shirts). Then we start to arrive at our civil needs of esteem and self actualization (“employee of the month”, chairman’s award).
With every step, one can pat oneself on the back that we’ve successfully contributed to the better company. Our people are becoming self-actualized, and the company will benefit from it. Once they hit self-actualization, they are civil, and ready to delivery. They should be a better contributor to the greater good of their employer and organization.
The truth though is a bit more complicated and mostly disheartening. To be realistic we need to examen how people behave on a day to day basis in their relationship to their environment and others. What better circumstance can there then be than to examen people at work, where a significant part of their motivational life is at play?
By observing people over the last few years, I have anecdotally come to the conclusion that there is indeed no such motivational rung ladder that benefits the organization. Sorry Maslow. It may work for personal motivation, but it costs the corporation. When it comes to the group, the rules of the motivational game changes (see John Nash’s Equilibrium).
Everyone for Themselves
What we can deduce from observing office workers is that they freely oscillate between primal, tribal and civil behaviours for their own benefit as first (and mostly only) motivation. They hardly ever contemplate the greater good of the group, unless they personally benefit from doing so.
While a worker may profess civil commitment for the greater good of the organization, they will not hesitate to take a primal liberty of an extended lunch hour for their own benefit. Similarly, while publicly subscribing to the vision of improved change, the employee will not hesitate to constrain actions that may impact their own personal standing in rank and remuneration relative to the changing circumstance of a new direction of the company - self preservation is at play.
It is easy to see that while self preservation and significance are perceived as higher order motivators for the individual, it similarly can be key inhibitors to the organization’s “self actualization” or purpose. What is one then to do to advance the corporate agenda under these circumstances. To implement advancement, is it all about “me, me, me”?
Yes! One can make the case that it indeed is, regardless of a person’s position on the motivational ladder. Corporations that recognize this truth and enforces this behaviour has a way in which it can create momentum towards an overall “social” agenda of the company. If one can show people what is in it for them, then only can change successfully be executed for their benefit. When the “me” agenda is the DNA that drives the business, then it becomes significantly and profoundly powerful.
Two immediate examples prevail:
- Apple Computers: Steve Jobs often professed that at Apple they make products firstly for themselves. Products they like to use. If they like it themselves, chances are that people like them will like it as well. This approach has contributed to making Jobs an iconic billionaire.
- Google: Google has pioneered “me” as the “Google Way”. Google’s philosophy can be expressed in five general principles: Work on things that matter (*to you), affect everyone in the world (*your world), solve problems with algorithms if possible, hire bright people and give them lots of freedom, and don’t be afraid to try new things. The company allots 20% of employee’s time to which they can spend on whatever they like to work on. By celebrating the individual, Google the collective benefits.
Therefore, once one can deduce the personal motivation at play, then it becomes easier as manager to influence harness this energy and steer it towards desired organizational outcomes. This calls for not only an understanding of anthropological behaviour in general, but also a specific sensitivity for individual behavioural patterns and preferences and its implications for the collectives we have as our organizations and companies. Managers should take time to intricately know their staff, and know their motivations.
People are in it for themselves, before they are in it for others. This is not a problem but an opportunities for organizations that can recognize the motivations and satisfy the need for the company’s collective benefit.
Keys to Motivational Energy
Daniel Pink then provides the keys for us as managers to unlocking this motivational energy in “What Motivates Us”:
- Autonomy: Get out of the way and allow an individual to do the job. Every person has their own unique approach to getting results. Managers should recognize, respect and encourage it. Promote autonomy and link it with accountability, and see what happens. People mostly rise to the occasions when given the space to do so.
- Mastery: Encourage personal mastery. People like to get better at stuff. They like to be recognized for their skill and expertise. The more capable people are, the more the collective organization or team may benefit from this mastery.
- Purpose: Start with Why. While Maslow provides the map to personal motivation, Sinek succeeds in providing the catalyst for it. If a person is clear on the purpose, and the purpose becomes their purpose, then action comes automatically.
Organizations are organisms structured from the collective motivations of those associated with it. If the motivators are sound, the organizations flourish. If the motivators are distracted and without common purpose, then the organizations falter, wither and die.
As managers we have the mandate and opportunity to source and structure people for their motivations. If you bring the motivated people together around a shared purpose, encourage them to personal mastery and empowered them with autonomy, then there is no end to what can be achieved.
These are some of the golden rules for success in management.
Hendrik van Wyk
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