What really motivates people in the workplace?

Brent Herman our consultant managing the role
Posting date: 18 May 2023

The most effective leaders play a large role in creating an environment that is both engaging and enabling to teams and the broader organisation. To do this, we need to demonstrate self-awareness upfront. If we do not know ourselves well enough, we will struggle to enable and develop the talent around us effectively.

Creating an optimal environment for ourselves, our team and our business is also about ensuring that psychological safety is in place. Not only should we feel like we can speak up without the fear of recourse and support one another, but also instil and maintain trust to ensure the environment lends itself to everyone being able to optimise their own performance and bring their authentic self to work. A key component to this self-awareness is understanding our social motives.

The Three Social Motives

Renowned American psychologist, David McClelland’s, three social motives remain relevant in this context. For those unfamiliar with his work on defining the three social motives, you can think of these motives as “muscles” that we all have to a greater or lesser extent; that have taken shape through our formative years. They are hardwired and they provide us with the tools to manage ourselves more effectively and predict performance in others by getting the best out of ourselves and the people around us. There is no “good or bad” but rather a need to be aware of how strong one “muscle” is relative to the other. These “muscles” are recurrent concerns (not once off) that we may have, and they need to be “fed and exercised” otherwise they may have the potential to frustrate and derail us.

McClelland’s defined three social motives are: Achievement, Affiliation and Power.

Achievement is a recurrent concern for excellence, self-improvement, innovation. We use ourselves as the benchmark here and are energised by exceeding our self-imposed standards of excellence. This is the “perspiration” piece i.e., accomplishing results ourselves.

Affiliation is a recurrent concern for maintaining harmony and relationships. Someone energised by this muscle will find that they prefer to resolve and sometimes avoid conflict. The relationship is of the utmost importance and they work to maintain harmony in a team. Being liked and accepted is key to this individual but you do not have to have a huge network or circle of friends. You can also be invested in a few relationships too.

Power occurs in two possible ways. Personalised Power is a recurrent concern with status, reputation, influence and impact. Often the “go-to-person” in a crisis. Socialised Power on the other hand is all about providing unsolicited guidance, advice and support. Feeling energised by seeing others succeed due to your own efforts. While achievement is all about “perspiration”, Power is all about “inspiration” and driving results through others.

How do social motives affect psychological safety?

Well, if we are aware of the “muscle strength” in our body, one relative to the other, we can use these muscles to our advantage to improve psychological safety through the way we lead and the impact we have in the environment we create as leaders. If we lack awareness, we may become frustrated or unaware that our impact as a leader is becoming unintentionally demotivating to those around us, and very often, we may feel the same sense of frustration.

Theory is great but let’s make the connection to what our “muscles” may look like in practice when we apply it at work as a leader. How can this work to our favour if well managed or perhaps what happens when it derails us?


If you are aware and leverage this “muscle” effectively…helps psychological safety by…

If you are unaware and this “muscle” is not managed effectively…detracts from psychological safety by…


Sets standards and role models innovation, giving others the permission to innovate. Can also cut through unnecessary red tape to make self and processes more accessible.

You do it all and nobody else has a turn to develop. People do not feel valued and their strengths are not recognised and utilised.

Sometimes you take short cuts and others need to simply fall in line with your plan even though they know there is risk. They may not always feel able to speak out because it is often more about “my way or the highway”.


Connection and showcasing the value of empathy and relationships. This builds trust.

Can be construed as “favouritism” and having an in-group/clique. Does not always allow for everyone to feel like they belong.

Sometimes we avoid the tough conversations and with a lack of feedback, we do not know where we stand or how to develop. This may also impact trust.  

Personalised Power

Being guided by a vision and provided with clarity. Knowing that for as long as this person is around, no matter the crisis, you will always find a way through it.

Similar to achievement, if we are heavily focused on influence, status and reputation then hierarchy may get in the way of others speaking-up or feeling supported. Trust can be eroded and feedback for the leader is not forthcoming. This can seriously derail a leader and the business if not managed effectively. It is often here where avoidable mistakes are made and bad decisions tolerated because there is no channel to have a voice and be heard.

Socialised Power 

Making mistakes is encouraged, it is all about self-development. Working in an environment that promotes coaching, voicing your opinion and supporting others.

Sometimes unsolicited advice may not always be helpful or the right advice/guidance. While feeling supported, it could work against us if we take it onboard and implement it without critically thinking it through.

If we tend to be the “go-to” person for others and support them all the time, we could create an unhealthy dependency here (one we should avoid when coaching others). This could stifle other’s ability to think for themselves, be innovative and solve challenges from their own perspective. This could devalue diversity of thought.

Do you know your ‘muscle’ strengths?

While there are far more accurate ways to determine your “muscle” strength as leader, as a crude means, you can think of motives as the thing that gives you energy; “it is about what you enjoy, what gets your out of bed in the morning.” So, to think about what this looks like for you, take some time to consider the following questions in the table below as a helpful start to your own self-discovery. Remember there is NO RIGHT OR WRONG, these are all useful but the key lies in self-awareness, self-management and awareness of others. This will help you, your team and your business to be more effective and allow for psychological safety to flourish IF you are aware of your “muscle” strength and manage their impact effectively:


Questions to ask?












What do my emails look like?

What sports do I enjoy?

What movies do I like?

What books do I read?

Task-focused, sharp and to the point with a clear deadline

Individual sports

Crime/thriller movies, entrepreneurial story lines

Innovation, stories about self-starters/entrepreneurs


Conversational, wanting to find out more about the person and for example their weekend

Team sports

Romances or relationship-based story lines

Romance/stories about relationships

Personalised Power

Influential, attempt to change behaviour, control and often sent to many people at once

Contact sports 

Action, war

Stories about famous historical figures who may have been well known dictators or war stories

Socialised Power 

Advisory, sharing thoughts to help you be a better version of yourself, coaching in nature

Taking a coaching role in sports

Movies about someone being the conduit to help others or helping to grow a person/team

Self-help books or stories about role models who support and help others

*You should not draw any definitive conclusions from the above, it is merely designed to give you a flavour for which muscles may be strong in you and how these could play out both positively and less so if not effectively managed. You can have one, two or all three muscles equally strong. You cannot change this but you can better manage and leverage your strengths. 

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