The Motivation Problem: Good Goals, Bad Goals

            Employee motivation is not created equally.  Not all employees are motivated by the same things or in the same way.  There are numerous surveys out there to tell us “what employees really want”, but these will give you percentages and averages.  These will not tell you what Joe Employee wants and needs.  You want to know what motivates each person to do the job you want them to do.

            Motivation is simply based on goals.  If my goal is to run a marathon, I will train very differently than if I want to run a fast 5K.  My motivation – developing distance over speed – will affect how I train.  The goals that drive a person to work well or to be disruptive an unproductive are different for each person, but they can be effectively generalized.  There are two kinds of goals that motivate.  The first set are based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the other based on Dreikur’s “mistaken goals” of children, which can carry over into adulthood and the workplace.

            Abraham Maslow developed his hierarchy of needs based on his study of healthy, successful individuals.  The healthy and potentially successful person’s goals will depend on where he or she is at on the level of needs.  The goals must be achieved in order: physiological, security, belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization.[1]  By contrast, Rudolf Dreikurs identified the four mistaken goals of a child as attention, power, revenge and helplessness.[2]  Let’s see how we can put these in order and discuss implications for the workplace.

            First, Joe Employee needs to have his basic physiological needs – shelter, clothing, food and the like – met before he can have any higher goals.  Think of your entry level employees making minimum wage or slightly more.  What can motivate this person to perform manual labor, day in and day out, when he is probably not earning enough to live off of?  I had one such employee tell me he was working for the benefits, not the pay.  He was a normally healthy young man who was used to making a lot more money per hour than what we were paying.  However, he had once had a medical emergency that led to a $10,000 hospital bill he couldn’t pay, so this, plus the fact that he had difficulty finding any work motivated him to take the job.  Unfortunately, the stability and benefits of a regular position was not enough to entice to come to work every day.  His difficulty finding a suitable living arrangement and transportation was part of the problem.  The wages did not cover his basic needs, so the effort to get to work every day was more than his job was worth to him.  The hope of advancement in the future is not motivating to a person who is not subsisting in the present.  For some employees, the wage is not intended to provide for all needs.  Many young adults take low paying jobs just to earn spending money while they are living with their parents.  Their basic needs are already met, so they may be looking for work experience, money for a car, or most likely, the sense of belonging that comes with going to work and hanging out with friends.

            Safety and security is the next goal that needs to be achieved.  For an employee, this means that the workplace is safe and the person’s home life is safe.  I once had an employee who told me that her husband beat her.  For her, work was a place to come to be safe – home was not a safe place.  Normally, an employee will worry about being safe at work, particularly in hazardous work.  Some positions pay more in recognition of the inherent hazards of the job.  Employees must also feel safe with the people around them.  There is not much that will motivate a woman to work in a place where she is being harassed or threatened and feels unprotected by the company.

            The next goal is belonging.  You can never underestimate the social aspect of work.  Many people who take the lower paying jobs are finding motivation not in the paycheck, except to the extent it provides for their basic needs, but in the social interactions with coworkers, some of whom may be relatives and friends.  This is one of the downfalls of telecommuting – the isolation from the work environment – despite the hype about the joys of working from home in your pajamas.  Many people need to get out of the house and work with other people around them.  More introverted types might do well working with fewer distractions.  However, the need for belonging does not go away.  It may be that the family meets this need, and the desire to spend more time at home with the family is sufficient motivation to forsake the social benefits of the work place.

            The next goal is for self-esteem.  This one is far more complicated and more fraught with pitfalls.  If an employee has not yet met her need for self-esteem, she is more likely to be driven by the mistaken goals.  These, too, have an order to them.  A person who has met their physiological, security and belonging needs, either through employment or outside of work, will look for self-esteem.  If this is lacking, the employee will try to compensate by seeking attention, the first of the mistaken goals.  Some employees are secure enough to let their work speak for itself.  Others need to go out of their way to draw attention to their work or to themselves in order to feel validated.  If there is a conflict, they want to meet with every level of the organization until they feel their position has been ”heard”.  They may seek more credit than they are really due, alienating their coworkers and exasperating their bosses. 

            Years ago, when my father felt unappreciated and unrecognized by his supervisor, he went over his boss’s head to announce his resignation.  The manager who spoke with him assured him that he was doing a good job and that “the company” wanted to keep him.  He was offered nothing more.  He stayed with “the company” for 37 years, and he certainly got his boss’s attention! 

            A more benign version of the attention seeker is just the chronic complainer or the non-stop talker.  I had an office worker who would brag about her long work hours, but spent an inordinate amount of time in conversation with coworkers, to the extent they felt their own work was being unduly interrupted.  Another employee once spent some time in my office to air his valid concerns about the way his department was being handled within the organization.  He made some legitimate points, and I tried to address several of them with some constructive responses.  Every time I tried to offer some help, however, he quickly cut me off and went on to something else.  It was a very frustrating conversation for me, because I felt I was unable to help him.  I realized later, however, that he never wanted my solutions.  He only wanted the air time.  He got my time and attention, and that was all he was after.  My solutions were irrelevant.  You need to be aware of all types of attention-seeking behavior and respond appropriately.  The two best ways are to remove the reward – cut the meetings and conversations short – and provide a more constructive goal.  Offer respect, validation and public recognition for the behaviors you find desirable. 

            When attention is not enough to satisfy one’s need for self-esteem or validation, power is the next goal. Power seeking can take the form of being defiant or uncooperative.  One narcissistic and bilingual plant manager kept his power base by hiring as many non-English speaking as possible for key positions, making communication with managers outside his realm more difficult.  He also forbade his employees to provide anyone from outside his area with any information, forcing anyone who wanted information or cooperation to go through him.  This creates a classic dysfunctional work environment. The manager was very successful for a time, and he did make sure things got done, but he made a lot of extra work and unnecessary aggravation for the rest of the workforce.

            The power-seeker is difficult to deal with in the workplace, because they have usually built their career to put themselves in a position of power, not so much with authority, but with control over resources or information.  The trouble is, when the power-seeker is thwarted, he becomes vindictive. Revenge is the next mistaken goal, and is usually a way of reinforcing the person’s need to feel powerful and in control.  The actions can be very subtle, but very powerful.  The worst office nightmare is the passive-aggressive personality with a grudge!

            The final mistaken goal is helplessness.  How can this be a goal?  Helplessness can be a means of moving others into your service.  By the time the hapless worker has failed to achieve the first three mistaken goals, the feelings of inadequacy are so overwhelming, the person feels there is very little worth striving for, except letting other people do their work for them.  This is often the person who just can’t seem to get his act together.  This may involve substance abuse, excessive personal problems or just an overall inability to meet the demands of the job.  These people exhaust me.  They insist they want/need the job, but they present with so many problems that I – or the company – is expected to solve for them in order to make them employable.  When you are giving a manager cab vouchers so he can get to and from work, you know you are dealing with an employee who is more motivated by helplessness than employment.

            The employee who has achieved a reasonable amount of self-esteem will not be motivated by these mistaken goals.  The need for self-respect and appreciation of one’s work is the motivation for the work.  These employees can be very money motivated.  Money can represent achievement and recognition.  So can things like title, an attractive office, perks and so on. Recognition need not always be public.  A well written performance appraisal can help the employee feel appreciated and motivated for higher achievements.  Meaningful work and opportunities to develop skills and knowledge bases and to advance in their career will be very motivating to those whose goals are respect for self and coworkers and superiors, achievement and personal growth.  These are the steps that lead to self-actualization.

            I have a friend who is 80 years old, serves on two school boards, works part time as a consultant and volunteers at many levels in his community.  Yet he still believes in working and lifelong learning.  This is a person who has really achieved self-actualization, and continues to strive.

            In an ideal world, all your employees would have met their self-esteem needs and would responds favorably to positive and well-proven management practices for motivation. Their personal goals would be congruent with the organization’s goals, such as continuous improvement, growth and team achievement.  Since not every employee will have achieved this level of goal motivation, it will be important to understand the lower goals and the mistaken goals that may need to be addressed to help maintain these employees as contributors to the organization.


[1] A.H. Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation, Psychological Review 50(4) (1943):370-96.

[2] Dreikurs, Rudolf and Soltz,Vicki. Children: The Challenge New York: Hawthorne Books. 1964.


About stacifoss

I am an HR professional, runner, beauty consultant and mother who is interested in healthy living, psychology, business, education, politics, parenting, community involvement and loves to write!
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