What’s Your Primary Motivation?

Primary Motivation: Do You Know What Drives People?

In my work as an executive coach, leaders often tell me they can’t “figure out” their boss or colleague. They experience the end result of the interaction, but can’t explain what is driving the behavior. They’re having trouble relating to or understanding the person, or they can’t seem to influence or build a solid relationship. In a word, they’re frustrated, and they don’t know why. In my experience, they’re missing the core insight that explains most of their coworker’s attitude or behavior. I call this insight “primary motivation.”

The Root of All Work Behavior

I believe that we’re all centrally driven by a dominant attribute that determines much of our behavior in the workplace. One’s primary motivation is that underlying value, belief or perception that most of our actions true back to; our behavior can be explained and interpreted by our strict adherence to this fundamental motivator. Discovering the primary motivation for the people around you can make the difference between thriving and losing your way.

The key question that can change the game is not what, it’s why. When my clients share stories of not connecting with coworkers, I ask: “Why do you believe they’re acting this way?” The goal is to get the client thinking about the underlying motivation. I want them digging deeper to the core of this behavior, position or attitude. Why are they doing this? Why have they taken this stance? Why are they giving off this vibe? I believe that if my clients can identify their colleague’s primary motivation, they can interpret, adapt and relate to them more successfully.

Common Motivators

The study of work motivation is as old as work itself. Common work motivators include job security, advancement, recognition, achievement, compensation, and a sense of belonging. I generally encounter three particular motivators:

  1. Individuals motivated by job security generally don’t like to take risks, challenge the status quo or push for change. They’ll do anything to stay employed, including keeping a low profile so they don’t rock the boat. A recent client had a boss who wouldn’t challenge or push back on the CEO. Once she figured out that he was primarily motivated by keeping his job, his behavior began to make sense. Her response was to double down on the business case for any proposals he was taking to the corner office; the idea had to be so good that it would sell itself since she couldn’t count on him taking a strong position.
  1. Another common motivator is recognition. Some people are motivated by the spotlight; they want (and crave) attention. They need constant recognition for their efforts and most of their behavior is geared toward getting credit for anything they’re involved in. If you believe this is the primary motivator for a peer, look for ways to ensure they’ll get some recognition for partnering with you. Be aware of what motivates them, and build in ways for them to be acknowledged for their efforts.
  1. A third motivator that I see often is advancement. This motivator goes beyond just wanting a promotion, or being consumed with climbing the corporate ladder. Sometimes it’s more subtle, as with people who are overly concerned about their positioning on the team, or focused on becoming the boss’s favorite. This is a dangerous motivator because it can lead to all sorts of dysfunctional behavior, and can impact everyone on the team. If you suspect that a colleague is motivated primarily by becoming the boss’s favorite (at your expense), exercise caution, and try to coach your coworker into becoming a better team player.

Positive Motivators

Of course, not all primary motivators have negative undertones. Most people have honorable core motives. They’re driven by a fundamental desire to help others, or to achieve great results. Others just enjoy being part of a winning team, or are simply motivated to do their best work, each and every day. Regardless of whether one’s primary motivation is devious or noble, it helps to figure out where your co-worker’s behavior is ultimately grounded. I’ve had several clients tell me that gaining this insight helped them manage their boss more effectively or coexist with a peer. The secret is to look beyond the behavior itself and determine what is underneath; figuring out one’s primary motivation can explain a lot of their behavior, and may unlock some tactics you haven’t considered yet. You may not always diagnose the primary motivation perfectly, but over time, you’ll get more accurate.

One last thought about primary motivation – it wouldn’t hurt to identify what’s driving your own behavior. If you’re honest with yourself, you should be able to articulate the underlying driver of your own work behavior. If you’re comfortable with what it is, let it continue to guide you. If you don’t like what you see, think about adjusting your goals to something more principled. You just might like the changes you see in your own behavior.