Rethinking 4-Drive Model of Employee Motivation | The Lantern Group

Rethinking the 4-Drive Model of Employee Motivation

I have been touting the 4-Drive Model of Employee Motivation since I first read the 2008 Harvard Business Review article “Employee Motivation: A Powerful New Model” by  Nohria, , Groysberg, and Lee.   It is a powerful theory on human motivation in general, and in particular, employee motivation.  First presented in the 2002 book, “Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices” by Lawrence and Nohria, the model outlines four main drives of motivation.

At the Lantern Group, we’ve been working with this model for almost three years now.  We’ve posted on it several times in this blog (see 4-Drive Model here, Impact on Leaders here, and other info here, here, here, here and here for just a few examples).

It’s  good – but not perfect.

Right away we realized that it needed to be tweaked.

The model started with four drives: the drive to Acquire, the drive to Bond, the drive to Comprehend, and the drive to Defend.

It was an easy ABCD taxonomy – but once we started using it we felt that it missed some aspects of employee motivation.

Revisiting the model

Through our work we found that when we expanded the single word descriptor to two descriptors per drive, the model gained some additional power and credibility.  Thus, we now refer to the 4 drives as:
A) the drive to Acquire & Achieve,
B) the drive to Bond & Belong,
C) the drive to Challenge & Comprehend, and
D) the drive to Define & Defend.

This was not done arbitrarily or without great thought.  We researched it and had many a debate over the verbiage to use and how it fit in.  We felt like we were validated in our ideas when we found that the Center for Research on Corporate Performance (CRPC) which included Nohria and Groysberg as founding members also expanded the descriptors – although theirs were slightly different.

The additional descriptors added contextual elements that helped clarify the various drives and help people understand them.  This was true particularly for managers who used this model to help motivate their employees.

Often times the additional descriptor helped deepen the current understanding of one of the drives.  For instance, “Achieve” was added to the Acquire drive to help clarify the fact that this drive was not just focused on “things.” The drive encompassed extrinsic elements that we’re both physical (i.e., money, things) and also status (i.e., recognition).

We added “Belong” to the drive to Bond because we found people thought of Bonding as just that, forming a close bond with one other person. The reality is that this drive is about more than just one-on-one relationships, it includes our drive to belong to things such as a team or clique.  We are social creatures and long for that sense of belonging.

Other times, the descriptors added a missing component to the drive.  This was particularly true by adding “Challenge” to the drive to Comprehend.  While Lawrence and Nohria had talked extensively about our innate curiosity and drive to learn, they also brought up the fact that we are driven to overcome challenges.  This drive was not just about learning but about overcoming challenges that we face. This was not entirely clear in the 1st edition of the model.  Our work also showed that this drive had more validity when we presented it once we added the Challenge component to it.  We are innately driven to tackle challenges that are placed in front of us (e.g., completing the undone puzzle, solving the whodunit mystery, finding the shortest way to work, etc.).

We struggled most with adding “Define” to the drive to Defend.  In general, this is the hardest drive for people to understand and tap into.  On a basic level, we understand that we defend those institutions and beliefs that we hold dear – but we thought that it also went deeper (or we wanted it to go deeper since we felt that the model was missing a piece).  We believed that the drive to defend could be thought of as trying to tap into a larger perspective of defending who we want to be as an individual. That it is really a drive about purpose and passion.  “Define” for us means that we are constantly driven to define what our beliefs are and what is the main purpose in our life.  Not the most elegant addition, but a fix that seems to help.

In all, these tweaks helped.

But it is still not perfect.

Still working on it

We are looking for ways to make it better.  We need to find a better way of highlighting the drive we have around Purpose.  Dan Pink and numerous others have shown that this is a very powerful and real drive.  We need to integrate this concept into the model better.

We need to find a way to show how passion is created.  How it is a real driver of motivation and one that can have a very powerful impact on behavior.

We also need to simplify this.  It was elegant in the beginning.  The ABCD model was easy and succinct.  We’ve made it messy by filling in some of the missing pieces but this makes it harder for people to grasp and understand.

We need to try to make it elegant again.

What we are doing

We are also looking at how we utilize this model when we work with companies to actually drive change and engagement.  We have developed workshops for managers to help them understand this model and how to apply it to their group or team.   It is important to take the theory and turn it into practical daily activities.

We have developed a 4-Drive assessment to rate how an individual or group measures on each of the drives.  This gives us a snapshot of their motivational profile.  Are your people more motivated by the drive to Acquire & Achieve or the drive to Challenge & Comprehend?

We have started to use this model when we work with companies around developing and communicating their incentive and compensation plans.  We know that those plans work – they tap into the drive to Acquire & Achieve (contrary to what some new authors are claiming such as Dan Pink)…but we also know they are not the only solution (in this we agree with Dan Pink).  In fact, they are just a sliver of the motivational solution.  This model can help us develop overall systems that work in tandem together.

We like this model.  It works.

We are trying to improve on this model – and probably will be doing that for a very long time.

Let us know what you think – leave a message in the comments section below!


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  1. Al Correa

    This actually dovetails quite nicely with theories realted to “Creating a Learning Environment”. You may want to look at that research as it is very supportive of many of these theories.

  2. Al Correa

    Also am curious if you looked at any of Peter Sange’s research in developing this model.

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