The 5 flames that motivate your people
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The 5 flames that motivate your people

3 years ago · 3 min read · AICPA Insights Blog

What motivates your people? And how can you key into their motivators to drive strong performance?

Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who developed a pyramid-shaped hierarchy of needs, was a pioneer in the study of motivation. His pyramid begins with basic needs, such as food and shelter, followed by social needs, creative needs and, ultimately, self-actualization. Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, takes that idea one step further. Writing on how businesses can match people’s motivations, he argues that as humans we are driven by three key motivators:

  • Achieving mastery or wanting to become really good at something.

  • Having a sense of autonomy, or wanting to choose what you do, how you do it and with whom.

  • Having a sense of purpose, or wanting to know that what you do is important and meaningful

Pink believes that people inspired by all three motivators will perform at their best.

In examining his and Maslow’s theories as part of my own work on motivation, Pink’s conclusions raised one big issue for me: people don’t necessarily stop being ambitious once they attain all three of Pink’s motivators. So what pushes them to keep excelling?

I wanted to find out. By reviewing research, conducting surveys and interviewing dozens of people who are exceptional at what they do—artists, CEOs, scientists, athletes, salespeople, speakers and more—I came to a remarkable conclusion about human motivation. People actually gravitate toward one of five types of feelings, and we spend our lives trying to reproduce these feelings as often and as strongly as possible. I call these feelings the five flames of motivation (see my graphic, "Five Flames of Motivation"), and the first letters of each one together spell out the word fired:

  1. Flow motivation. Some people experience a state of flow — a very powerful biochemical reaction that puts them in an almost Zen state of mind. This can happen when they are absorbed in a computer game, sailing at sea, running with the wind in their hair or performing just about any other activity you can think of. There is a great deal of science behind flow states, which we also think of as being “in the zone.” Not everyone has experienced this state, but for those who have it’s a strong motivator.

  2. Inclusion motivation. Many individuals want to be part of a team, to develop a strong bond with others and to see the group perform well. They often come from strong families or had a great team experience when they were young. This motivation, which involves other people, is the opposite of flow, which is personal and internal.

  3. Results motivation. Are your strongest memories of winning or achieving? If so, you may be results motivated. One man I spoke to said he felt invisible until he was seven, when he won a prize at school and his dad gave him a pat on the back. Inspired by how he felt when he gained his father’s approval, he ultimately became an award-winning athlete.

  4. Expression motivation. Other people are more affected by emotions and tend to have a strong artistic side. They often work in the arts or the caring professions, seeking out peaks of feeling and driven by a powerful need to communicate. Interestingly, there are thousands of them hidden inside business organizations, where an artistic nature is not seen as a strength. So, they spend the weekends singing in a choir, writing poetry, playing in a band or participating in medieval reenactments.

  5. Discovery motivation. I met a scientist named Norman MacCloud who told me he picked up a rock when he was nine and became fascinated by all the insects wriggling underneath it. He spent the next 60 years pursuing his insatiable appetite for finding new things. That’s typical of people with discovery motivation, who may include forensic accountants, trial lawyers and scientists. They are hugely innovative and are happiest when they are pursuing the next discovery.

These five flames of motivation obviously provide insights into what drives people in general, but what do they mean for firms?

Many people—including organizational leaders—often fail to recognize that the things that motivate them are transferable skills. Such skills are valuable assets to a business. They include the focus of the flow-driven person; the inclusion-driven person’s enjoyment of building rapport; the results-driven person’s accountability and ability to see failure as a learning opportunity; the empathy of the expression-driven person; and the curiosity and innovative spirit of the discovery-driven person. When leaders identify and map key skills in their staff, they can fan the five flames of motivation to build a powerful and well-rounded team.

Related resources to continue your development:

“Human Intelligence," a three-part, self-study online series. Learn how to develop the skills that make you uniquely human and position yourself to take advantage of the new opportunities that await.
"Women in The Profession: Motivate, Retain and Succeed," an online video session detailing how to motivate, retain and train women in the accounting and finance professions.

Sophie Bennett

Sophie Bennett is a motivation expert, best-selling author and visiting lecturer at Cranfield School of Management, as well as a former Head of Content for Dell.

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