A deep intranet silence blankets the firm’s many branches like a heavy snowfall, which only makes today’s message even louder: Why did Sherri Z., AIA, LEED make Managing Partner, and not Alex P., AIA? After all, Alex consistently brings in the most and best projects — a self-described “meat-eater” bringing sustenance to the folks at their desks.
The injustice of it all! Why bother killing yourself at work when it doesn’t get you anywhere?
One way to understand why Sherri took precedence over Alex, check their social media shares and posts, or rather the social motives driving those shares and posts. Some will show signs of leadership, of instilling a team spirit, others not so much. A photo and caption on Instagram can capture the whole story, especially to management consultants brought in specifically to advise on such issues as promotion and succession.
My friend Rob Hartz started out at Digital as a sales leadership trainer and then went on to Fidelity in organizational development. Today he’s on his own, a consultant to various multinationals on leadership. Occasionally, we go on “dog dates” in which we follow our pets on trails just right for walking and talking motivation theory. Here, then, is what I have come to understand why steady Sherri might make a better candidate than hard-charging Alex, despite the apparent injustice of her promotion, and why their social media presence can tell you a lot.
Let’s say you were to start your research on what makes people tick with none other than Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). That would be tough: too many theories, currently amounting to 454,408 Freud citations according to Google Scholar. Along comes Brooklyn-born Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) to simplify things with his Hierarchy of Needs, something most of us got as Gospel in high school. The need for basic food and shelter at the base of the pyramid, and self-actualization and personal fulfillment at the peak.
While it’s neatly organized, the problem with the Hierarchy of Needs theory turned out to be that subsequent research couldn’t support it.
Harvard social psychologist and workplace motives researcher David C. McClelland (1917-1998), actually took over a Navy sub in 1939 just prior to World War II to test Maslow’s theory by employing empirical research. He came away with a very different take on how motives operate. McClelland and his team had the tables set in the sub’s mess as usual but had all food taken away. The hungry officers and crewmen were ordered to write stories in response to line drawings: someone standing behind what could be conceived of as a countertop or holding a tray.
For the first seventy-two hours the predictable happened. There was a significant increase in the number of references to food and food consumption in their stories.
For example, officers and men wrote that the line drawing figure behind the “counter” was a butcher or a deli owner, for example, or that the person holding the “tray” was a waiter bringing an order. Naturally, the researchers were excited by these early results, because they seemed to reinforce Maslow’s Basic Needs hypothesis. However, after seventy-two hours, much to McClelland’s surprise, all this changed. Food stories decreased to a baseline number which raised serious questions about Maslow’s hypothesis. While the stories the men wrote in response to the line drawings occasionally referenced food, there emerged a rich variety of thoughts and motives about family, friends, aspirations, goals and opportunities to influence others. Rather than declare Maslow’s hierarchy was incorrect, McClellan at first suspected that his research design was flawed. Specifically, he felt that the subjects of the experiment may have assumed that food would eventually come and that Uncle Sam would surely not let his sailors starve. He figured the men may have been simply choosing to think about other things, without revealing their true motives through their stoires. McClleland’s next experiment, then, was to go to India and study motive patterns of truly starving people and to compare their motives to a control group of well-fed individuals.
The result was that very few people in either the starving or the control had hunger as their dominant motive. This experiment and others that followed ultimately knocked the foundation out of Maslow’s famous Hierarchy, something Maslow himself later retracted. It became clear to McClleland and others in the field that thought has a powerful effect on behavior which in turn drives outcome. And it was this paradigm that was to become the focus of McClleland research for the remainder of his career.
McClelland found across the board that some people would rather die of exposure than let their families down (he called this motive the “Need for Affiliation”), while others would go on a suicidal mission if it meant an additional stripe on their uniforms (the “Need for Achievement” motive), and still others, about 5 percent of the tested population, woke up in the morning motivated to influence their refugee camp, their Navy outfit, or the world (the “Need for Power”).
For this reason, Alex, as the design firm’s achievement-motivated rainmaker, might share something like this on his firm’s intranet, “What project I wonder will I bring in this quarter to beat my record of last year?” At the same time, Sherri as Managing Partner, motivated The Need for Power might share something like: “I am wondering how can I might help people in my firm have a greater influence on our projects and on our world?”
On the basis of this post, my friend Rob would describe Sherri’s Need for Power as of the interactive, collaborative type. There’s also the My Way or the Highway type, but that’s another story.
Meanwhile, on public social media, Alex might post about his latest exploits opening a new territory, an Instagram photo showing him shaking hands on a deal far, far away with a caption like, “I’m just getting started over here!” In contrast, Sherri might share a photo by a distant project manager showing an innovative fenestration solution that makes everyone proud. Her caption: “Go, team!”
Now let’s say Alex really wants to take on a leadership role. He’s tired of being a one-man show. Is he locked into his Need for Achievement forever? Most professional coaches would start by trying to get Alex to change his behavior, not his basic motivation. But changing behavior works only for a short time. Alex can suddenly “walk the walk and talk the talk” of a leader by typing congrats on co-workers Facebook birthdays, and thumbs up emoticons on group shots at the beach. But why keep this social media stuff going when there’s a huge deal pending in China luring him away? It’s not going to happen.
Motivational change involves going deeper, ultimately creating an internal shift from the I word to the We word, with long-lasting results than behavioral change. You can sense that sense of authority, the desire to influence others, the We word wherever you go on in real life or on social media, drawing followers, as if by magnetic force. And the good news for Alex and others is that this Power in motivation can be learned. For more, check with Rob Hartz or one of the firms he’s been affiliated with for many years, the Burnham Rosen Group in Boston. It’s the creation of David Burnham, who with David McClelland, co-authored the Harvard Business School Classic: Power is the Great Motivator.
Now where have our dogs taken off to? Rob and I wonder, as meander through the woods, lost in motive theory. More to the point, what will motivate them to come back: Affiliation, Achievement, or Power?
Rob Hartz Consulting | http://www.robhartzconsulting.com/
Power Is the Great Motivator by David C. McClelland and David H. Burnham Harvard Business Review Classics) | http://amzn.to/2d4CKiJ
Burnham Rosen Group: The Science of Superior Performance | http://www.burnhamrosen.com