Behavior Matters!

Harnessing the power of behavioral science to improve how organizations, leaders, and people work

Category: Four Drive Theory (Page 1 of 5)

A bike, some lights and motivation: what a stationary bike hooked up to an LED panel of lights can teach us about motivation!

Kurt Nelson, PhD and Ben Granlund


As part of our exhibit booth at the World at Work 2016 Total Rewards Conference, we designed a method for giving away our promotional t-shirts that simultaneously acted as an experiment to help us understand what motivates people.

What we found out was intriguing and reinforces some key behavioral insights about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, recognizing accomplishments and having specific goals.

Our process involved a stationary bike that was hooked up to a bank of LED lights1 – the faster and longer you peddled, the more lights lit up, sounds basic enough right?

The six LED light panels set up on a vertical pole that lit up from the bottom to the top – once all six lights were lit up, all the lights flashed and the process was over.

We set our process up a little differently

To earn a very cool “Behavior Matters” t-shirt, all people needed to do was get on the bike and light up one of the lights.

We did not require that people light all six lights, and we did not assign a time length for peddling to earn a t-shirt.  All they had to do was light up one light – a relatively easy process.IMG_4473

Additionally, people could get their name written on our leader board if they were one of the five fastest people to light up all the lights.  This white board with hand written names on it was updated whenever someone earned one of the top five spots.

Our original concept was to have people read one of two sets of written rules – one positive and encouraging; the other bland and discouraging.  The intent was to see if the different messages impacted how people performed or felt about the activity.  We quickly realized that our original plans were not working – too many people wanted to ride the bike and the process ended up being us telling participants the rules instead of them reading them thus invalidating the initial study.

Luckily for us, this is where things got interesting!


While the original communication experiment didn’t pan out, we were still able to gather very interesting findings.  Specifically we were intrigued by some of the insights we gained into extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, the power of leader boards, and the impact that specific goals have on performance.  First, let’s look at the overall results:

A total of 103 people rode the bike over the two days the exhibit hall was open (some participants rode multiple times).  Their performance is shown in table below.

Highest number of lights lit up 1 2 3 4 5 6
# of people achieving level 1 0 6 14 34 48
% of people achieving level 0.9% 0.0% 5.8% 13.6% 33.0% 46.6%
Average time to reach level
(in seconds)
15 0 68.7 46.1 32.5 20.6

The average ride time was 31.7 seconds – with the fastest time being 4.8 seconds and the longest time being 80 seconds.   There is some obvious differences based on physical fitness here as shown by the inverse time required to reach the different levels of lights (i.e., more time on average to reach 3 lights than 4 lights, etc.) which played out in how well people did.


Do you just want a shirt or are you looking for something more? 

We needed to have an incentive to get most people on the bike.  True, there were some who just wanted to get on the bike and see how many lights they could get, but the vast majority of the people got on the bike to earn the t-shirt.  In other words, they needed an extrinsic reward to participate.

But that’s not the interesting part…

The interesting part was that only one person stopped at the first light (1 out of 103, that’s less than 1%)!  Once they were on, the majority of participants moved past the threshold for earning a t-shirt and continued peddling to see what they could do.  This was not easy – we had the settings on the bike be rather hard. This meant that peddling for more than 15 seconds was difficult for most non-athletes.

We believe once they started the activity, they intrinsic motivation of the bike  kicked in.  The lights tracked their progress immediately and they could directly see how they were doing against the goal.  They wanted to see what they could accomplish.  They no longer worried about the t-shirt – but instead, focused on the event.

 In other words, they challenged themselves to see how many lights could they light up?

They had already committed to participate in order to acquire a t-shirt (the reward) – now they were pushing beyond what was required for the shirt because of the challenge that they were presented with.  If we think about the 4-Drive Model of Employee Motivation (for more info see here, here, here) we see that the Acquire component was instrumental in the motivation to initiate the event, but the ongoing motivation was propelled by the intrinsic drive to Challenge oneself and see how they could do.


The idea of using an extrinsic motivator to entice people to participate in programs or activities that they are not excited about and then allowing their natural Challenge drive take-over should not be undervalued.  Additionally, the more that a program uses a measure of goal progression, highlighting an individual’s progress, the more a participants Challenge drive is activated.  In other words, the design of your extrinsic incentive program can impact the intrinsic motivation that is activated. Finding cohesion between these extrinsic and intrinsic motivators can certainly help drive the right behaviors.

What’s up with the leader board?

We had a leader board where riders got their name featured if they were one of the five fastest people to light up all six lights.  They did not earn any additional extrinsic reward for being on the leader board – no fancy give-away, no grand prize, not even an extra t-shirt.

So did it make a difference?

Read More

Whose job is it to motivate?

I had a client send me an e-mail the other day – with this question – “Whose job is it to motivate?”  Here is the response that I sent her…

“Whose job is it to motivate?

This was an interesting question – one that, at first glance, seemed like it could be quickly answered if I did not spend too much time thinking about it.   So I spent some time thinking on it…and like the proverbial onion, it has many layers.

A quick response would be that it is the manager’s job to motivate.   They are in charge of their team of people and one of the responsibilities that they have is to make sure that their team is doing their job.  You get people to do their job by motivating them.  As a manager, you are likely to be in control of many of the motivational levers that organizations typically use, such as performance ratings, incentive components, special role assignments, recognition and a host of other tools that are designed to help motivate employees.  As a manager, you are often the closest link to the organization that employees have – as such, you are key to ensuring that they know the strategy and vision for the company.

So the job of motivating is the managers….

Except that when you peel away another layer, and ask the question, “can a manager really motivate his or her employees?”  This comes down to a theoretical question about our ability or lack of ability to really motivate another person?  Sure, you can motivate through fear and intimidation, but those are not typically the types of motivational forces that we think of when we think of a manager (outside of the threat of firing).   The question is revolves around the idea of having someone else motivate me or do I need to motivate myself.  You can put all of the rewards and accolades in front of me, but if I choose not to be motivated by that, then is there anything that you can do to motivate me?

Think about this in another way as a hypothetical question – what would motivate you to bring great physical harm to another person?  Would any amount of money sway you to do that?  Would any type of promotion or praise get you to do this?  Probably not.  You would have to have an intrinsic motivation to be able to do this (if even that would suffice for many people).

If we go down this path, then motivation is self-derived and is ultimately the job of the employee…

However, you peel away another layer and look at the role that our environment plays in our behavior and attitudes.  For instance, we know that people eat more when their plate is larger – even if they are not motivated to do so, or more ominously, motivated to not eat more (i.e., on a diet).   It has been shown that the work environment that we are in can have a significant impact on our attitudes and ultimately our performance.  We know that people’s behavior is changed when they are presented with an incentive or reward for doing something.   Studies, as well as our own experience, show that we will work longer, harder and more tenaciously if we know that there will be a luxurious reward as the result of our effort.  This points to the fact that a company’s leadership and the culture, environment, systems and processes that they develop are key to motivation.

Taking that line of thought, it is leadership’s job to motivate…

Except they do not often have an immediate presence or interaction with the employees.  That is relegated to the manager and how those systems, environments and culture are interpreted often relies on their actual practice of them…so we are back to the manager…and to the individual…

Ultimately, it comes down to a combination of all three.  That the job of motivating is everyone’s job.  

This is not a simple matter to say that “motivation” falls within someone’s job description…it is indeed a larger issue that has its roots in so much of what everyone in the company does every day.  We know that employees are complex individuals.  That each of us is driven by different needs and different goals.  The Four Drive Model helps us put those drives into categories, but those drives are still hugely complex in their nature, and that it takes a large amount of effort by the company, managers and individuals to really motivate us to our fullest potential.

Ok – hope I didn’t get too long winded or philosophical and that this was insightful to you…

Let me know if you have further questions.


Kurt Nelson, PhD.”


Ignite your motivation

This blog has Ignite your motivatoinbeen kind of quiet lately – partly on purpose and partly because life is busy.

The on-purpose part of being quiet was brought on by a post I read by Derek Sivers blog ( on whether it is better to focus, entertain or both?  The underlying message being that we sometimes put out content to just put out content, when instead we should be focusing and developing our ideas and build a “path to mastery.”  It is a great conundrum that we all face…as Derek says, “you’ve got a conflict: What’s best for you is to shut up, sit down, and focus. What’s best for them [audience]… is for you to be entertaining.”

That being said, I’ve been working on developing a few concepts that build off of what we’ve done in the past, but reflect a new approach for us.  This required me to shut up, sit down and focus.

As readers of this blog know, we have concentrated on improving employee motivation at an organizational level for years.  We put a lot of stock into understanding the research out there on this topic and not just repeat the same old ideas.  For instance, outside of the original researchers, we have probably done more work on the 4-Drive Model of Employee Motivation than anyone in the country (see here, here, here, here and here for just a sample of our thoughts on this).  We think that this motivational theory offers companies new ways of looking at their reward and recognition framework that is refreshing and helps drive motivation in exciting ways.  We used this and other research (mostly insights from behavioral economics and psychology) to help organizations set up reward and recognition systems that tap into these insights and improve employee motivation and engagement.  We’ve done exciting work with a number of large and small companies helping them do this.

What we hadn’t done is focus on what individuals could do to improve their own motivation.

We had not explored how individuals, such as yourself, keep on task and stay motivated to achieve your goals?  How can we leverage the new research that is out there to help us stay motivated everyday.

So we are shutting up, sitting down, and focusing on that.

And it is fascinating.

Recent work by researchers on habit formation, willpower, and individual change have shed light on a number concrete steps that we, as individuals can do, to help keep us motivated and on task.  We have taken the first strides in  building a process that melds together all this research into a few main concepts that can be framework for a personal motivation plan.  Our initial work has led us to develop a five step process, that we think will not only help people to ignite their own motivation, but also to build ways to maintain that motivation for the long run.  These five steps are:

1) Find your motivational flow

2) Recalibrate your habit triggers

3) Enable your daily environment

4) Socialize your motivational strategy 

5) Track your goal progress

Each step has both research and real actions behind it.

We are still working on this and are looking for collaborators to help refine the process and test our assumptions.  The idea is to create a workshop and support materials that can be piloted. In the near future, we will be testing the model and piloting the process with a few people.  If you want to be part of that group, let us know (leave a comment below or e-mail and we will put you on the list and you can be one of the first to try it out.

As always your thoughts are appreciated.

How We Are Developing a Reward and Recognition System using the 4-Drive Model

I’m consulting with a 12 Billion dollar sales division of a Fortune 500 company regarding the future of their reward and recognition system.  Without going into much detail, they are trying to take a strategic approach to how they can improve the effectiveness of their reward programs.  As part of this process, we are using the 4-Drive Theory as a model to help guide how we build this system.

As one can imagine, the organization’s current reward and recognition programs rely heavily on the Drive to Acquire & Achieve.  By far, this was the predominant focus for over 90% of the components.  Additionally, our research showed that the current system has a number of legacy programs and other recognition items that are no longer strategically aligned with the organizational mission.

There are a number of ways that a reward system can be developed.  We aligned on developing a system that would tap into all four of the drives and focus on motivating actions on three specific sales behaviors.  With this in mind, we wanted to create a framework that would leverage various reward and recognition components.  That framework is shown below:

Reward and Recognition components

Within each of these four components could be a number of different programs that would be focused on driving one or more of the desired behaviors.  We also identified that while any of the components could activate any of the four motivational drives, that particular drives would be more readily activated by programs within specific components.  We’ve mapped this below:

R&R and the 4-Drives

So while both the incentive compensation and the non-cash components easily activated the drives to acquire and challenge, group trips and other recognition were more likely to tap into the drives to bond and defend.   This provided us with a framework to think about how we could leverage all four drives with various reward and recognition programs.

While this is a high level perspective, it does provide a company with way to think strategically about their reward and recognition system that aligns it with the 4-Drive Model.  We were able to map out specific programs within this framework that provided both a means for effectively driving behavior as well as leveraging all four drives.

To our knowledge, this framework has not been used previously within a large company.  We are very excited about how this is being applied and the impact that it will have.
Please let us know if you have any questions or thoughts by leaving a comment below.   Thanks.







4-Drive Summary

4-Drives I found this summary of Lawrence and Nohria’s “Drive” and thought that it was a nice summation of the book.   Josh Kaufmann does a nice job of laying out the key insights to the theory and some good ideas on how to apply the theory into the real business world.  I really like the final comment by Kaufmann regarding adding a drive around “feel.”  It is an interesting concept that I’m going to explore in more detail.

Click through to link to read more…

Let me know what you think – leave a comment!

Remember – you can always follow me on Twitter @WhatMotivates

Behavior is what matters

For all my passion and research into motivation I have to respectfully admit that motivation by itself is shit. By itself, motivation doesn’t do anything. The most motivated people in the world sometimes still just sit on their butts.

What is needed is behavior.

It doesn’t matter if motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic. It doesn’t matter if my motivation applies to the A Drive or the D Drive (or the B or C Drive for that matter). If I don’t start or stop doing something (i.e., behavior) then the amount of motivation I have is a moot point.

Motivation is important in that it leads to behaviors. Motivation is one of the key elements in achieving behavior change (starting or stopping something). But it is only one part. The guys from Vital Smarts, Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan and Switzer came out with a book called “Change Anything” not too long ago. It sheds light on this problem. While it mostly talks about individual change, but their insights can be applied to all motivation. They state that when we fail to change, “…when it comes to personal change, we think first of our own lack of motivation.” The problem with this belief is that there are a number of other factors that influence whether or not we actually change.

Change is hard. That is why motivation is important. It is the gas that powers the change engine. We need it to push through the difficult times and persist with our change effort. Again, Patterson et. al., talk about the other influences on whether or not we change – there are social factors and environmental factors. We can be motivated to loose weight all we want, but if we hang out with people who are always going out and eating big meals and just watching T.V. and if we have a packet of Oreos in the cupboard and no carrots in the fridge – it is much harder (and some might say – even impossible) to change.

When we are designing motivational programs for our employees, we need to understand that no matter how good our incentive program is or how well we activate the 4-Drives – our employees will be hard pressed to change if the social and environmental aspects are stacked up against them. If we want greater collaboration and teamwork, not only do we need to design the compensation plan so that it supports that, but we might have to look at how we configure our work space and what activities we allow while at work. If we want to get people out in front of customers more, we need to explore what are the routines that we have our employees do that inhibit this or what are the social/cultural pressures that might get in the way of this behavior.

So it boils down to understanding that while motivation is important, it cannot be the only thing that we focus on. We need to broaden our perspective to understand how motivation fits into the larger behavior picture.

And so while you might be motivated to agree or disagree with me – I’ll only know if you leave a comment (and thus, do a behavior). Click on “leave a comment” below.


Four Drive Model Research Findings

Many of you have read the guest post by Kristen Swadley where she reviews her research on the 4-Drive Model.  Here is her Senior Honors Thesis presentation which goes into the details of her study and provides a wonderful overview of what her research uncovered.

[vimeo w=400&h=300]

Kristen Swadley – Senior Honors Thesis Presentation – Spring 2011 from MSSU Honors on Vimeo.



Implications of 4-Drive Research: Guest Blog by Kristen Swadley

Guest blog by Kristen Swadley

Four Drive Theory of Employee Motivation

According to the Four-Drive Model the drives to acquire, bond, comprehend, and defend motivate every human being and should all be addressed in the workplace. However, it is critical for managers and leaders to recognize that employees are motivated by the four drives at differing levels. My recent study, which is discussed in the post “New Research on The Four-Drive Theory of Employee Motivation”, revealed that a person’s demographic background effects which of the drives he or she values the most.

This information could have three potentially significant effects on the way managers implement the Four-Drive Model of motivation.

First, managers can use the results from the study to fine-tune motivation techniques in order to best fit the strongest drives of each employee. Workers should be tested to determine which of the drives is most motivating on down to which provides the least motivation. This will allow managers to not only implement all four drives, but to build custom motivation plans based on what drives the employee the most.

Second, managers can find ways to fulfill each of the drives in order to increase motivation. For example, employees who had sought higher education valued the drive to comprehend more than those who had not obtained a college degree. Managers can make note of employees with higher educational levels and ensure that they are given ample opportunity to express ideas, problem-solve, and engage in challenging and meaningful work. Those with a strong drive to acquire should be given recognition and opportunity for advancement. Employees with a strong drive to bond need opportunities to work in teams and collaborate with coworkers, while those with a strong drive to defend need to see fairness and just processes in the workplace. Research has shown that increasing fulfillment in all four drives leads to much higher motivation in the workplace, but if that is focused specifically to what drives the employee the most without disregarding the other three drives, I believe this would have additional positive impacts on motivation.

Finally, managers should have some way to assess employees in relation to how they perceive that each drive is being fulfilled and they are being given enough opportunities to excel in those areas that most strongly motivate them to go the extra mile. Whether through employee questionnaires or informal meetings, it is a critical step to get feedback from employees so that any necessary changes can be made to further increase motivation in the workplace.

Feel free to comment with any questions or feedback.

Author info:

Ms. Swadley recently completed her thesis titled:  Managing Motivation in the Workplace: A Demographic Dissection of the Four Drive Theory.   She is currently at Missouri Southern State University.  This article is based on the research that she completed in her thesis. 

New Research on The Four Drive Theory of Employee Motivation

Rising arrow 2011Our knowledge of the Four-Drive Model of Employee Motivation is constantly being expanded as researchers study it and organizations work with it.  This is exciting because it allows us to use this theory more effectively to drive performance and increase employees motivation.

Recently I have been in contact with Kristen Swadley, a student at Missouri Southern State University.  Ms. Swadley has added to our understanding of Four-Drive Model by conducting research to see if demographic differences such as age, gender, marital status, tenure, income,  job role, or education level impact any of the four drives.  Analyzing data from 315 surveys, Ms. Swadley found some interesting findings that point to both the robustness of the Four-Drive Model as well as how specific demographics correlate to some of the drives.

The following information is from the thesis she completed around this study:

Regarding gender the analysis showed that there was no difference between males and females in their tendency towards a particular drive.  Thus the four-drive model does not have a gender bias.

However, there was a relationship between the age of respondents and the drive to defend – older participants (over age 41) showed a higher correlation with the drive than the younger age (under 25).

The drive to defend was also found to be higher in married and divorced participants compared to those who listed their status as single.

Tenure showed a correlation only with the drive to bond where unemployed individuals rated that drive significantly less than those who were employed (specifically, those employed for 0-3 years and over 12 years – which is an interesting fact in itself).

Income levels showed a correlation between both the drive to bond and the drive to comprehend.  Those individuals who earned under $19,999 placed a significantly lower value on both these drives than those in the higher earning brackets.

There was a difference in the drive to comprehend between various work roles.  Specifically, there was a difference in how both middle management and trained and professionals viewed that drive compared to skilled labor  (with middle management and trained professionals placing a much higher significance on it).

Unsurprisingly, educational level also showed a correlation with the drive to comprehend, with those participants who had achieved a graduate degree valuing this drive much more than those with just a high-school degree or some college.

This information helps us as leaders start to understand how we can better use the levers we have to motivate our employees.  Ms. Swadley puts it best when she says, “While it is true by the tenets of the Four Drive Theory that all humans are motivated in some way by the four basic drives, it is important to take into account that all employees are motivated by the four drives at differing levels. A manager with the intention of implementing the Four Drive Theory in the workplace should have employees tested to find out which of the drives are most important to the individual on down to which of the drives provides the least amount of motivation.”

We hope to have Ms. Swadley right a guest post in the upcoming weeks to explore a little deeper what her findings mean for managers and leaders – until then, please let us know what you think by leaving a comment.  Thanks!

4 ways great leaders can impact employee motivation using the 4-Drive Model

In order to maximize motivation leaders need to provide an opportunity for employees to satisfy the four drives: Acquire & Achieve, to Bond & Belong, to be Challenged & Comprehend, and to Define & Defend.  Leader’s can begin to influence and start to fulfill each of these drives by using  some of the systems and processes they already have in place.  Alterations and enhancements to those systems and processes can help the organization be one in which employees can satisfy their drives and become highly motivated!

We attempt to map the connection between each of the four drives and the different organizational systems/processes that impact them.

 Drive A: Achieve & Acquire

This drive is primarily satisfied through a company’s Reward System. This drive is met when companies have a total reward system that: highly differentiates top performers from average performers and average performers from poor performers; clearly ties rewards to performance; recognition is given for outstanding performance; pay is above competitive benchmarks in the city/industry; and top employees are promoted from within.

 Drive B: Bond & Belong

This drive is mostly met through an Organizations Culture. Organizations who’s culture is one that: embraces teamwork; encourages the development of friendships and bonding; one in which employees can depend on their peers to help them; a culture that values collaboration; a culture that celebrates and shares; and a culture that is focused on the “employee first” are crucial to this drive being met.

 Drive C: Challenge & Comprehend

This drive is fulfilled primarily through Job and Organizational Structure.  Organizations need to ensure that the various job roles within the company provide employees with stimulation that challenges them or allows them to grow.  Job roles that satisfy this drive should: be seen as important in the organization; jobs should provide personal meaning and fulfillment; roles should engender a feeling of contribution to the organization; organizational structures that provide growth opportunities within the company; learning offerings (training, seminars, etc) that provide employees with new skills and knowledge,  job sharing/rotational opportunities that can provide new challenges are the key to fulfilling this particular drive.

 Drive D:  Define & Defend

This drive is met mostly through an employee feeling alignment and connection to the organization.  This can be done through a company’s Vision/Reputation and their Performance Management System. Organizations that have a strong vision or positive reputation in the marketplace can help create that alignment with employees.  The company should be perceived to be: fair; providing a valued service or good; ethical; and good stewards.  Organization’ performance management systems can also help through giving insight into the company’s vision.  Performance management system should be one that is: open and transparent; perceived to be fair; provides direction; and that is trusted by employees.

What great leaders need to do:

Rightfully or not, many employees look to the company to provide them their motivation for work.  While many of these motivations are inherently in a company, good leaders know that they have to work at it constantly to ensure that they are satisfying all four drives.

1. Focus on all 4 Drives:

It is important to understand that all the good work that a company or leader does in these four areas can be ruined if one of the four drives is lacking. Research shows that weakness on fulfilling one of the 4-Drives “castes a negative halo” on how the company or leader performs on all the other 3 drives. It is important then for a leader to ensure that they are identifying and addressing any issues that they see in any of the four drive areas.

2. Individualize motivation:

It is also important to know that individual employees each have a unique 4-Drive Motivational profile.  In other words, some employees will respond or require greater satisfaction of the A drive, while others will focus in on the C drive (or B or D).  Each employee will perceive how the company or leader is performing on these differently.  Good leaders are one’s who understand those differences and can focus specific employees on the satisfiers of their specific needs.

3. Communicate effectively:

Leaders need to be able to effectively communicate how their systems, policies and structure align with the four drives.  In other words, they need to be able to explain to map out the connections between what the company is doing or providing and how that would satisfy one or more of the drives.  For instance, a leader could discuss the reason that they are sponsoring a community service event is not only to help the community (drive D) but also to provide an opportunity for employees to get to know each other and their families (drive B) and to give them a chance to learn a new skill (drive C).

4. Experiment:

Good leaders need to constantly look for ways of enhancing each of the four drives.  This is an ongoing commitment that requires leaders to be focused on looking for different ways in which they can provide the opportunities for employees to satisfy their needs.  They should implement new structures and processes and see how they work.

Next steps:

We can help you or your company use the 4-drives to increase motivation.  We offer assessment, consulting and workshops on this.  You can contact us at 612-396-6392 or

Let us know what you think – leave a comment below!

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