Leadership of Motivation — Part 2

The Ethics and Practicality of Incentives

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Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Behavior and Motivation: A Triadic View

If we reflect on our own and other’s behavior we can detect that we engage in a three fold set of behaviors and have experienced each of the three over a period of time, even in the same situation. At the first level, we find ourselves being reactive to a stimulus that comes toward us. A response is produced that seems to come without thought or reason. This is the same level of behavior that the Behaviorists presented as cause-effect or stimulus-response, and as the sole source of learning and motivation. A triad view holds this as one element of our psychological make-up, but with a lower ordering quality. Our reactive nature is conditioned by our environment and by others interacting with us. It is not however our only mode of behavior.

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On another level, we experience ourselves as able to respond to nuances surrounding us, to override a reaction by choosing to be sensitive to particular needs in a situation, including personal needs. This behavior comes from a higher ego strength or self esteem — an ego managed behavior. In these situations, our ego takes control of our reactive or impulsive self and works to produce a desired end. It is this behavioral attribute that allows us to be an acceptable member of society. We use our ego self to manage the reactions that are in our lower nature.

Beyond the ego resides another level of behavior which again must be guided by us if it is to be active in a situation. This behavior is referenced in ancient and modern literature as purposeful behavior — or the teleology of human nature. We willfully bring this behavior to bear on a situation when we make ourselves conscious of a higher purpose that has meaning and significance to a greater whole of people or entity of which we are a part. The purposeful behavior can take control of and manage the reactive and ego behaviors. This behavior requires development and is not well understood or developed in our industries or as a society.

When we are able to enable our purposeful behavior, we can manage the role our ego plays in any situation. We will find that situations that might be threatening in a reactive mode do not capture our energy and attention or divert us from a path we see as critical to the achievement of a purpose. Thus, our behavior comes under our own management.

Incentives are working with the lowest nature of human behavior and invite workforce members into a cycle of environmental stimulus, with the hope of a predictable response. Just as with animals in research studies, the reactive behavior of humans becomes focused on the reward or as also happens when the animals can not determine how to achieve the reward, they stop trying and die — in spirit in the case of the factory worker.

A 1993 survey of employees by INC. magazine found that the highest response to the question “what was the single most important long-term motivator”, the highest response was “a sense of mission and purpose” with “bonuses” second from last just above “profit sharing”. Second was feedback and communication (although I caution the use of feedback, and an excerpt from my book No More Feedback is available here). Number one and two are highly correlated to a purposeful mode of behavior and our ability to realize it at our place of work. Even in organizations that develop purpose and mission statements, the incentives tend to absorb the greatest attention. Incentives also frequently tend to show how the mission statement of the organization is merely platitudinous.

Each of these behaviors is nurtured by and nurtures in return a particular set of values that enliven and inform motivation. To understand the value base provides enlightenment regarding the triadic processes of behavior.

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The first level of value to which we may be drawn in a situation, at least as an initial response, is one where the ability to realize self preservation or self gratification is sought. We will initiate or respond to causes that nourish this basic value of being in ourselves. We tend to be reactive in these situations, particularly if we feel ourselves threatened—whether the threat is actual or imagined. Beyond that we have a level of value, belongingness, that responds to a need or desire to belong to a social group, and to feel welcome and valued — i.e. a part. Here we respond to causes that nourish the level of self that wants to avoid alienation and rather feel identity with a peer group. This need is frequently realized by being on a team, or joining a club or union. The third level of value might be called the need to make a contribution, or sometimes on a grander scale, to make a difference with our lives. These three levels of value are always seeking a place and a way to be realized.

There is an inherent hierarchy in these levels, one that clarifies the distinctiveness of each but also the potential relatedness. For instance when we join with or become a true part of causes that help us realize a belongingness need, such as a team in the workplace, we are able to realize a self-preservation value by having others “in it with us”. When we are part of a contribution opportunity, such as a charity campaign, we have a feeling not only of belonging with any co-campaigner, but also with a larger community of receivers of charity or beyond. We also feel a sense of self-satisfaction or self-gratification from the camaraderie we find.

On the other hand when we evoke the drive in people to attach themselves to the level of motivation that helps them realize a self-gratification need, such as “service employee of the month”, we may and frequently do work against the other needs being realized. How often have you seen conflict and disagreement among the people when a person wins over others or is recognized over others? This divisiveness may happen even though it is imperative to the success of the organization that everyone feel a part of the same team and further to make a contribution of their unique talents.

We can not work to satisfy lower needs as well by working on them directly, but rather by an approach that works from the highest order of contribution being enabled. This approach provides the context in which higher order motivation can be realized. An incentive culture is by its nature divisive since everyone is “working the system” with their own agenda, either to win, or prove the system is unfair. Uniqueness of contribution is also aborted when some people are seen as “higher performers” than others.

Along with the triads of behaviors and values, there is a corresponding triad of intelligences linked to the three distinct brains that make up the human whole. In part three, we’ll see how these intelligences operate in practice and how leaders can work to engage the highest order of intelligence throughout their organization.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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