Any discussion of motivation should begin with an analysis of people who have shown great application of it. Arguably, those whom Fortune ranks among the wealthiest in the world might make the list, especially if money were the only criteria for measuring motivation. It’s not, but it does provide a way of looking at the score after the game. It offers no clues about what got the person on the list in the first place, however.
I doubt Bill Gates has a mortgage, worries about tuition for his children, or asks his wife to clip coupons. Yet, he continues to work, largely in the arena of philanthropy. If he doesn’t need the money, what motivates Bill Gates? And what can business leaders learn about motivation in those who aspire to reach his level of mastery?
Decades ago, Abraham Maslow offered us a model for understanding healthy people: a pyramid of human needs that culminates in a person seeking self-actualization after the more basic needs have been met. But Maslow didn’t go far enough. How can we better understand those who have reached a level of self-actualization? How can business leaders know this group of exceptional performers?
Much of what we believe about motivation doesn’t apply to star performers, and most business leaders haven’t caught up to this new understanding of what motivates us. The myths and theories of human potential and individual performance are outdated, unexamined and unproven.
For instance, behaviorist B.F. Skinner assured us that people will seek rewards and avoid pain—the beginnings of the “carrot/stick” approach to management. Reward behaviors you want repeated; punish those you want to extinguish. Extinguishing comes in handy if you’re a fire marshal, but it doesn’t really apply to humans—much less exceptionally gifted humans. Also, extinguishing tends to eliminate things you never intended to purge, like intrinsic motivation and creativity.
What drives star performers?
1. Achievement. They enjoy the feeling that comes with accomplishing something important or difficult. They don’t want to stick to the status quo or stay in the rut. They want to innovate and create. Purpose-driven and focused, they welcome opportunities to learn and to use their talents in new ways.
2. Control. Unlike average or typical employees, star performers crave autonomy. They want the freedom to live the life they choose and to do the work they enjoy. To thrive, they need to stay in charge of their own lives and frequently want to influence the lives of others.
3. Affiliation. Even though they are success-driven and independent, star performers derive comfort from relationships. They like feeling a part of something bigger than they are but don’t gladly associate with those they don’t respect.
Bill Gates’ achievement drive led him to leave Harvard in his quest to do important work. He took a path less traveled but controlled his destiny and that of millions of others. He formed critical relationships along the way and allowed them to create the foundation of his life.
I have written repeatedly that even the best leaders can’t motivate people because motivation comes from within. You have to hire motivated people and then do your best not to demotivate them. But more needs to be said. You also have to understand them better and create an environment where they want to work.