The Winner Effect

Exploring the neuroscience of success and failure

What Motivates You?

It is important to match what you do to what your basic motivations are

What makes you want to get out of bed in the morning?

A zest to master the next challenge?  The pleasure of meeting familiar colleagues? Or the desire to have influence and impact that puts your stamp on the world?

These are examples of the three fundamental motivators of our behavior which the great psychologist David McLelland identified: the need for achievement, the need for affiliation and the need for power. These are the great – largely unconscious – drivers which shape the course of our personal and working lives.

Of course there are other motivators too – love, hate, sex and fear  among others – but for most of us, the three engines of achievement, affiliation and power are, in different combinations for different people, what makes us want to get up in the morning.

But often our lifestyle, and in particular our jobs, don’t match well with our motivational profile. For example, to be a good manager, you shouldn’t have too great a need to be liked[i]. Too great  a need for affiliation can cloud your judgment and make it hard to take tough decisions. You will also suffer a lot of extra stress because the decisions you have to make will conflict with your basic motivation.  That stress may, if prolonged and high, causes changes in your brain which make you less mentally sharp and hence even more prone to stress – and so the vicious cycle rolls on.  

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If this is true for you, should you consider changing to a job where your need to be liked by others is an asset rather than a liability?

But a good manager has to have a certain appetite for power. Power is the drive to have control over things that other people need, want or fear. Even small amounts of power can make us smarter, bolder, less depressed – but only if we have a healthy (and not too great)  appetite for it.

Power is a powerful leadership drug, in other words. But like all drugs, if taken to excess, it can become addictive and destructive.  

Do you have an appetite for power?  People with an appetite for power tend to have the ‘killer instinct’ – for them winning is pleasurable and failure is stressful.  But the opposite is true with people with a low appetite for power: for them winning is stressful and they will often unconsciously sabotage themselves if about to win at sport or in business: they are uncomfortable with the dominance which goes with winning a contest [ii]

There is a real danger in power which you can see in every organization: if managers with power over others feel inadequate in their role, they will be much more likely to bully underlings. How our bosses respond to power can make our lives very happy or very miserable.  How does power sit on your shoulders? Or, if you don’t have much, how does power affect you?

Finally, there is achievement – the desire for recognition and success, independent of whether we are liked or not, and separate from any power we have over others. Most people reading this book will have a high level of achievement motivation and that is generally very good – this motivation is the main psychological driver of successful economies [iii].  

But what sort of achievement motivation do you have? It turns out that it matters a lot whether you are motivated by external or intrinsic rewards. If you seek promotion purely for the status and money which that brings, for instance, as opposed to the anticipated pleasure of being able to master new challenges and acquire new skills, you will be more vulnerable to sudden dips in motivation and mood when the external rewards don’t come in. Or even if they do come in, external rewards always lose their lustre and have to be constantly increased to maintain their capacity to motivate. Money is the prime external motivator. Once you get onto the money-only motivation, then you can never have enough.

So, more than anything else in your life, perhaps, it is very, very important to know what motivates you and to make sure that there is not too big a gap between this and what you do with your life.

[i] Winter, DG (1991) Leadership Quarterly, 2, 67-80

[ii] Wirth MM et al (2006) Hormones and Behaviour 49 (2006) 346–352

[iii] Miner, JB et al (1989) Journal of Applied Psychology 74,  554-560

Ian Robertson, Ph.D., the author of The Winner Effect, holds the Chair in Psychology at Trinity College Dublin.

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