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Passion, People and Principles

Why Are Some People So Motivated?

post # 246 — November 20, 2006 — a Careers, Managing post

The October 30, 2006 issue of FORTUNE magazine had a series of articles on the question of what the secrets of “greatness” are. Geoffrey Colvin’s introductory essay reported that formal, scientific research now shows that repeated conscious practice, always pushing oneself to improve, is a better explanation of who succeeds than attribution to ‘inherent talent.’ (Yes, he discusses people like Tiger Woods and Bobby Fischer.)

This is, of course, the conclusion I had also reached anecdotally and reported in my recent article “It’s Not How Good You are, But How Much You Want It.”

However, as Colvin also concludes, there is a large mystery that remains. Why do some people always push themselves to work at getting ever better, while others settle for competence or moderate improvement? What makes ‘driven’ people driven? If the key to individual (and organizatonal) nnexcellence is a greater determination to get somewhere (and that seems to be the emerging scientific conclusion) then can such attitudes be bred in others or must they be ‘found?’

James McNerney, CEO of Boeing, answers that question by saying “I do know that there’s a restlessness in some people…I don’t know if it comes from the toilet training, if your parents do expect a lot of you and you’re always trying to grow and meet their expectations… Another (component) is that success and achievement can feed on themselves. .. “

Next question: Does it come down to the inner motivation that people have, or can a manager bring it out in other people? Can a manager turn an “uninspired,” “not-driven” person into an inspired, driven one? McNerney says: “expect a lot, inspire people, ask them to take the values that are important at home or at church and bring them to work”

For anyone with a career or interested in business these are important questions. Do you get inspired, driven people by hirinrg well those who bring it all with them (for whatever psychological reasons) or can a good manager create repeated passion, energy dedication?

I’m torn between the two points of view. It does seem as if the amount of “internal fire” that people have at work (or outside it) is a built-in characteristic. It may be there for admirable reasons (ambition, the desire to excel) or less admirable reasons (paranoid insecurity) but it’s an observable phenomenon that some people have it and others don’t.

But I’m also reluctant to give up the notion that managers can’t make a difference. As I said in the (audio podcast) interview that I did with BUSINESS WEEK, maybe managers can’t create the fire, but they sure as heck an suppress it if they don’t perform the managerial role well.

So, over to you? Why do YOU think some people are continually motivated to improve and keep trying while others are not? And can a manager influence that or is it inherent in individuals?


Mike DeWitt said:


I think there is a heavy genetic component for the truly driven; something that shapes one’s perceptions of the world around them and one’s identity that makes them need to constantly strive for more and to not be cowed by setbacks.

That said, I, like you, think all of our brains have the basic mechanism for such drive, but also have a set of limiting beliefs (often created through bad experiences / past failures) that consciously or subconsciously suppress that drive. A bad manager reinforces those limiting beliefs. A good one can help an individual suppress them and reveal and nurture the inner drive of an employee. But that’s messy and time-consuming, so most managers employ a ‘tubers and twigs’ management methodology.


posted on November 21, 2006

Stephen Seckler said:

Great question David and great comment Mike (I was just about to post virtually the same comment.) I agree with Mike’s post (i.e. that true drive is largely genetic but that we all have it to some degree.)

I’ve seen managers try to inspire in a variety of ways, but many try a “one size fits all approach.” Mass inspiration is much more efficient; but we all need (and want) individual recognition and attention. As Mike points out, this is very time consuming; but for your most valued employees, very worthwhile.


posted on November 21, 2006

Peter Vajda said:

All motivation is internal. While “external” stimuli, circumstances, events, etc., can be provided, the final “choice” or motive to act (and no action or not choosing is a motivated event) comes from within. This choice points to (a) the degree or intensity of one’s movement towards self-actualization and (b) ego needs for control recognition and security.

One’s motives are related to one’s values…and an exploration of one’s values can give valuable insight into what’s underneath one’s choices.

How one reacts to, or responds to, managers, colleagues, direct reports, clients, other stakeholders, one’s spouse, partner, neighbor, rude drivers on the highways, etc., are all driven, mostly unconsciously, by how one responds to one’s needs for control, recognition and security…mental, emotional, physical, spiritual, psychological, social, financial, etc. It’s just that most folks never stop to self-reflect on what drives them.

So, managers holding out carrots, incentives, etc. of one form or another, are just that. An objective act. 50 different folks will respond in 50 different ways, depending on their inner map of reality..how they view the world…and how each views their world is a function of their beliefs, mental models, assumptions, preconceptions, misconceptions, and their own self-images…all of which are formed in childhood and then brought with them to adulthood and play out in their relationships with others at work, at home and at play.

It’s often helpful to know why folks value what they do….as this awareness can support win-win relastinships…from the management perspective, what is it that brings one manager to assume a very controlling management style and what is it that brings another manager to assume a “servant” or “benevolent” style?

It’s mostly a function of what is motivating one to act…based on how each manager, for example, views people…..e.g., as “functions” or as “humans”. These, views, in turn , are based on their values…and ego needs, which, in turn, were developed as children and, now play out in the sandboxes called “work” and “office.”

posted on November 21, 2006

Jennifer Davis said:

It could be that the best managers are the ones that are the best at recruiting and retaining “driven” talent. Once they get those people “on the bus” they provide them tools, support, and get out of their way to allow them to accomplish great things. Certainly managers can demotivate and distract high-performance individuals on their team, but we have all seen what happens when poor managers hire poor performers and then try to remediate them.

posted on November 21, 2006

Tim Burrows said:

What about group dynamics? At Gallipoli, there were hundred (thousands?) of men lined up in the trenches. They were certainly a heterogeneous group with diverse drivers, but when the call came, they all scrambled over the top to the prospect of almost certain death. How much of this can be attributed to an internal need for self actualisation?

An extreme example to be sure, but doesn’t it illustrate that external forces can motivate people to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t do?

One could argue that the people in this example may have felt that they would die regardless of whether they charged or remained in the trench.

But less extreme examples can also be seen in sporting teams. Even project teams in corporations rely to some extent on this type of motivation.

Peer pressure is a very strong force, when it is properly harnessed.

posted on November 21, 2006

Shuchetana said:

Wow Tim, that was a really interesting comment.

I was just about to write that drive is mostly internal, and a manager can only try to find it and harness it, not create it.

But peer pressure is certainly extremely important. A modern-day example is Grameen Bank, a microcredit institution in Bangladesh, which gives loans (starting from about 15USD) to the extremely poor, who usually have no collateral. “groups” are given the loans, although an individual makes use of it: the group peer pressure is so strong that their default rate is negligible.

But then the question arises, how can peer pressure be harnessed in a healthy and effective way in the workplace? (Without, for instance, turning the office into a murky political playground).

posted on November 22, 2006

Duncan Bucknell said:

Great post and great comments.

The best managers seek to understand the people in their team and help them to find first the goals and then the behaviours to achieve mutual success.

David, you mentioned that you don’t read anymore. For those who haven’t read this great little book which goes to the core of this topic – I highly recommend Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s search for meaning’. (Don’t expect to be unaffected by it.)

posted on November 24, 2006

Dave Lee said:

Thanks for the great post and question, David. I’ve found that motivation is almost forgotten when it comes to today’s business discussions. Yet employees motivation to do their jobs and to learn what they need to learn to do their jobs tomorrow is one of the key factors in whether a company with succeed or fail.

I’m in agreement with much of what has been said here. Here’s my spin on it. Intrinsic or internal motivation is the real driver for our personal behavior. While external motivators, like money, status, peer pressure, often seem to be driving our behavior, in reality their impact is short lived and difficult to re-energize without increasing the reward. Thus we become intoxicated with the pursuit of money, or the beautiful/handsome partner, or the biggest house on the block.

However, when we provide the environment for employees to meet the requirements of their job in a manner which resonnates with their value of work, integrity and mission in life, he results can be astonishing. Due to the fact that the vast majority of employees leave their true selves at the door when they arrive to “perform” their jobs, there is indeed room for powerful managers to motivate nearly every employee.

The work environment (in the US) is seldom set up to promote self-actualization through work. Bureaucrasies and peer networks value consistency and stability and are very adept at warding off threats to the status quo. Even the most motivated people (yes, I do believe there are genetic differences in the mix too) can find the battle difficult. In one of the worst examples of an organization dousing the motivated, I watched as an Ivy League school dismantled what had been a world class center of instruction. Why? Because it consistently out shined it’s divisional peers who were complacently mired in mediocrity.

In the nameplate of my blog on workplace learning I have the following e e cummings verse. It’s there to remind myself and others how difficult fulfilling our intrinic motivation is.

it takes courage to

grow up and turn out to

be who you really are.

posted on November 25, 2006

Ian Welsh said:

There’s a line that runs as follows:

“the best way to maximize profits is to not aim for them.”

Sounds wrong? How does Southwest do well year in year out? By aiming directly at profits?

When I first started at my old employer (a large insurer) the managers used to say “we’re here to take care of the customer first.” A lot of people say that, but we did it – if push came to shove and an agent was screwing a client, even though the agent was the one who brought us the business, we’d slap the agent upside the head and take the chance on the business.

By the time I left the place was all about making that 15% ROI every year, and we didn’t put the client first anymore, except in exceptional cases (usually an old timer having a fit and putting her foot down “no, I won’t do it. It’s illegal and unethical.”)

And morale was down, way down, from when I started. You used to be able to be proud of what you were doing – making sure that when someone was in trouble, they were going to have the money they needed to deal with that trouble.

Instrinsic motivation (ambition) is key when you’re working in a job where you can’t believe in the job. And since in most organizations there is no senses of mission, you have to have inner fire to succeed to gtive a damn. And without giving a damn, no one is driven.

If your organization has a mission (and people are not inspired by “make 15% ROI for the stockholders”, sorry) then you’ll have more employees who are “on”. And, oddly, you’ll tend to deliver excellent returns. Maybe not 15%, but then my old employer won’t keep those returns, because they’re burning down the business to get them. Screw your reputation long enough, and one day it doesn’t exist any more. And people go elsewhere. But in the meantime, you can extract value from it till it goes away.

If Southwest changed its internal culture it would take years for them to lose their good rep. During the intermediate period they’d probably make even better results. After that they’d crash out.

See Marks and Spencer’s path during the nineties for a good example.

posted on November 26, 2006

David (Maister) said:

A lot of you here have picked up on the part of my question that asked about what managers can do to suppress/channel / elicit intrinsic motivation. But what about the original mystery question identified by Colvin?

Do you think there are any generalizations we can make about why some people have the will, determination and drive to excel, while others do not? Genes? Parenting? Social Background? Paranoia and Neuroses?

And what does you explanation / hypothesis say about building an organization (of any kind, commercial, governmentall, not-for profit)? What kind of selection processes should organizations use to identify such people?

posted on November 26, 2006

Ian Welsh said:

I’m going to punt slightly on your question David, and suggest a book for you to read (I’ve started reading books again, so can you!)

Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Mihaly deals with high performers in detail, including the mechanics of high performance. Some people learn the skills of high performing, some don’t.

Or to put it another way – some people are lucky to be born with a talent for it; some people are lucky in who their parents or teachers are; but most people can learn how to turn themselves on – if not for everything, then for some things.

But they must have the skills, and then be able to fit what they’re doing into a story that works for them. People who don’t see what they’re doing during the day as connected to a worthwhile goal don’t perform well during the day.

posted on November 26, 2006

Dave Lee said:

Fair enough to call us back to the original question, David. I guess I skipped it because it’s really a question that no longer fits the answer. The nature vs. nuture question is a relic because brain science, child learning, biology, and cognitive science have all come to similar discoveries.

it’s both and…..

we are born with rudimentary knowledge and skills and a very

curious disposition. This initial base of knowledge and skills is added to and molded by experience. The process of adding to our knowledge, reflecting on what we know, what we’ve forgotten and what we need to learn (or relearn) continues on throughout our lifetime.

Perhaps, if all environmental inputs were identical for all of us, we’d all end up in the same place. But life presents us each with a unique set of experiences. Some experiences move us ahead, some hold us back. Some of us are born with a silver spoon in our mouths with every advantage and end up holding up banks at gun point. While some of us are born into the direst socio-economic conditions, denied education, imprisoned yet end up a freely elected leader of a country and a world recognized humanitarian.

It seems we have an innate motivation to learn and grow that is either encouraged or discouraged by the events of our lives. This would mean that managers do have a role in increasing (or decreasing) employee motivation. What is encouraging to me about this understanding is that we don’t have to create the core motivation – it’s in us from birth.

Throughout life, we amass “cognitive rubble.” This might include major issues like predjudice or resentments. but it also includes minor issues like blindspots in our network, bias es in work processes, fear of change, unidimensional styles, bad habits, lack of knowledge or skills, lack of experience, unclear goals, misunderstandings, etc. Helping to clear the rubble from the mess created by our individual pasts and then keeping things clear so that employees can find and nurture their innate drive to grow and learn is definitely part of manager’s role.

Certainly, if I’m a hiring manager, I will try to find an employee who has the smallest rubble pile. It just makes sense. But I hope I would have also identified those key factors of the job and what character traits fit and don’t fit the position. If the job calls for 75% travel, I better probe to see what the candidate thinks about being away from home.

But no hiring process is going to find out every character quirk of each employee. So organizations need to be built in a manner that fosters diversity of style and character. That draws strength from differences. The goal is to enable individual employees to bring the best that they are to the table for the benefit of the organization.

Thanks again for the great topic, David.

Dave Lee

posted on November 27, 2006

Lance Dunkin said:

Great article. A few thoughts when trying to screen for potential greatness:

  1. Ask about hobbies—if work is just “work,” then this person is not likely to be great at it. If the type of work he/she is being hired to perform, however, shows up on a list of hobbies it will be an indicator of the potential for consistent practice (and greatness).
  2. If hiring out of school, compare the last semester grades to the previous three semesters. If there is a downward trend (or much worse a steep drop the last semester), this would indicate this person is probably about getting through barriers to entry, but not greatness afterwards.
  3. Bluntly ask if he/she is the type of person that likes to practice (that searches for excellence). You can argue that this is incredibly subjective, which it is—but it won’t matter so much what the answer is but the attitude (etc) when the answer is delivered.
  4. Ask candidates to describe something they work hard at/are passionate about. Again, the delivery will reveal plenty of information concerning motivation.

posted on November 27, 2006

Bill Dotson said:

David and friends:

I echo most of the nature vs nurture post — there is an element of both on everyone. Another saying is from the Jesuits — “give me the boy until he is seven and I will give you the man.”

If we have high expectations of our children and provide enough peer pressure to succeed, we can expect more from them. Policital correctness aside, this is why I hope I can raise my two boys as “Indian” as possible. High math and science scores are an expectation in my household. My Indian friends laugh, but they understand what I mean.

As far as selecting someone for a business position…so many people want to hire quickly. If one wants to hire quickly, then pull from your existing network of colleagues. You already know who the leaders are. If you have time to hire people, bring them in after school and nuture them for years. You may be able to turn someone into a truly motivated person. But that will only happen if he/she wants to be motivated.

posted on November 27, 2006

Eric said:


As usual; a great question. I just watched a PBS special about Everest climbers. I always say to myself, “These guys are really nuts,” but I still watch the whole show. It sucks me in and I can’t break away.

Why? I am stretched by the deep driving desire of these climbers to reach the top of the world, the highest you can go sans a plane or rocket. You can see the black of the universe from up there. You can see the curvature of the earth.

These guys have this passion to beat the odds early in their lives and they pursue it relentlessly until they make it to the peak or die on the side of the mountain.

I am not sure if it is genetics as much as it is a unique drive in these people to achieve their ultimate dream. One of the climbers said, “I think everyone who really wants to do something great in their life should take the opportunity to at least try to accomplish it.”

I think as managers, we are limited as far as how much we can influence people to really perform. We can go so far and then that intrinsic desire of the performer must kick in.

posted on November 29, 2006

Dee said:

I’ve hired many individuals as the owner of my own business. When it comes to “drive,” call me a pessimist but I really disagree that a manager can encourage/nurture someone to develop it if they do not already have that drive. We try to screen for people as best we can, and quite frankly the best indicator we have as to who will have that drive are those who (a) grew up in rural/farm/blue collar circumstances; and (b) paid their own way through college/grad school. Growing up in a safe suburban environment where mommy and daddy paid for everything and everything came easy, leads to a sense of entitlement and self-esteem that simply is not in tune with objective reality.

I’ve had employees who talk the b.s. of how they are a motivated go-getter, but in reality do all that they can to slack off on the hard stuff. You can try carrots, sticks, analyzing whether they have a fear of failure or are just plain lazy, but they just don’t have it in them, except when it comes to blaming other people or circumstances for why they could not get the job done.

Or, even worse, they are fully convinced that they are driven, motivated, and amongst the best of the employees, and when you tell them the specifics of why and where they need to improve, they just don’t get it.

One of the best articles I have read along these lines was http://www.apa.org/journals/features/psp7761121.pdf. Basically, the bottom 25% had vastly overinflated perceptions of their own performance both objectively and relative to others. Same principle applies to employees.

And for our particular business, I kid you not, the top employees in our office are all individuals who scored as Emperor Palpatine on the “Which Star Wars Character are You?” quiz. See http://www.matthewbarr.co.uk/personality/ . Unfortunately, it is a bit difficult to have someone take it as part of an employment screen. So go figure that one out.

posted on December 1, 2006

Stephen Seckler said:

This is such a fascinating discussion on so many levels. As the parent of 3 school age children (with 3 different personalities), I have come to appreciate the importance of setting the bar of expectations high; but I have also come to appreciate that no matter what you “expect” from your children, they are who they are. For example, both of my sons play soccer; but one is always running after the ball and enjoys playing offense. The other is more reserved and is happy to have the satisfaction of having stopped the opposition (i.e. he loves defense and doesn’t feel the need to have the glory of scoring.) I’d like to see him go after the ball more; but I’m also happy that he is motivated to be a strong defenseman and I give him positive encouragement for this.

In the workplace, you find the same dynamics and a good manager has to customise his or her approach accordingly. One thing a good manager will do is to try and identify where each individual’s unique strengths and interests lie. Not everyone can be (or wants to be ) a great rainmaker; nor can everyone be an exceptional draftsman.

Finally, to respond further to David’s follow up comment (i.e. what is the root source of motivation?), there are also a lot of “over achievers” out there who are trying to compensate as an adult for what they were never given as a child. There are many examples of celebrities who had horrible childhoods and were thus driven to succeed.

In managing these personalities, I think the key is to get the individual to focus more on the “team”—i.e. rather than performing at a high level but at everyone else’s expense.

posted on December 1, 2006

Shaula Evans said:

While this study might not explain why some people are so motivated, it goes a way to explaining how people who are (literally) hungry achieve success — the physical hunger may give them a neurological advantage.

Slightly off topic here, but I thought you might find it interesting.

posted on December 19, 2006

Ms. Sabrina Waller said:

I would have to say the Alpha Tau Blog makes a good point. Are people born motivated? The Blog said no, it is the enviornment people grow up in and who raises them. So if that were true, every person born poor would be driven to become rich, and all of the rich would have no drive. I dont know if the later is true, but I do know if you dont have everything, you dont necessarily want everything. And there is that saying “the rich only want to get richer.”

Mr. David Maiser’s article made me think of my grandfather. He returned from the war in Korea when he was 21 years old with only one leg. Instead of depending on benefits he got a job, went back to school and started a family. To only have one leg and do all that shows drive. Yet I see people who are crippled everyday who live on the streets and beg for money… I wonder if they just dont have any drive to make their lives better, of if the world has just become too hard to live in? People must be born with different levels of motivation. A manager can be a good boss, but if you are content with everything and never try to improve… then you will not get any further in life than you are right now.

posted on April 11, 2007

Steve said:

And the answer is … in my view: you are born with it, though idiot bosses can certainly destroy it! This is why I have always been self employed and a solo practitioner. You don’t have to explain to those who “don’t get it”.

posted on January 1, 2008