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2016-12-13 »

The four motivators

A long time ago someone sent me an article, maybe it was from Harvard Business Review, that talked about the four things that might motivate any given worker in their job. That article has really stuck with me since then. The idea is that, of course, we are all motivated by all four things, but most people have a "primary" motivator that matters more than the rest. I think that article helps explain why maybe 75% of your coworkers always seem crazy, no matter which side of the fence you're on.

It's now fuzzy from years of retelling the story in my own words, but as I remember it, the four motivators are:
1. Loyalty to a person
2. Loyalty to a vision
3. Money (and perks, etc)
4. Loyalty to a social group or environment

1. Loyalty to a person

Humans, some much more than others, have a tendency to follow a strong, charismatic leader. The world is a complicated place, and we don't always know the best path. Many engineers just want to concentrate on engineering, and let someone else tell us which direction to engineer in, with the stipulation that we want some reason to believe that it's the right direction. A strong leader can provide that confidence. Sometimes we call this a "cult of personality," because religious cults are formed around the same desire - the desire to believe in something, through believing in someone. Steve Jobs is the most obvious example, but you can also imagine Larry Ellison and Bill Gates had their ultra-loyal followers in their heyday.

You might also look up to a manager, director, exec, or just an individual contributor you think is a good role model. We have plenty of those.

2. Loyalty to a vision

In contrast to #1, this one is about something more abstract. Organizing the world's information. Bringing more, faster, abundant Internet to more people. Robots with laser eyes. Whatever. If you're strongly motivated by #2, you will put up with nearly anything as long as it doesn't get in the way of your goal. They can take away your free snacks, give you a Mountain View-grade commute, and pack your desks in like sardines, as long as you still feel like you're making a difference in the world. Once you stop making a difference, all the snacks in the world won't keep you around.

(Having no free snacks or food, or having too-cramped working quarters, reduces productivity, because now you have to stop and go find sustenance in the middle of the day or you can't concentrate. Even people motivated purely by a vision care about efficiency in achieving that vision.)

This one is of course the classic Silicon Valley story, but many people are not motivated as strongly by #2 as they want to believe. Few people can afford to only be motivated by #2, because it's actually quite hard to tell if you're making a difference or not. The other motivators can be used as proxies since they are easier to measure. (eg. I may not like Larry much, but I'm pretty sure if I follow him I'll make a difference, so okay. Or I have no idea if we're doing a good thing, but Microsoft sure pays me a lot of money, so I must be doing something worthwhile, so I can sleep at night.)

3. Money (and perks, etc)

The pure form of this is called a "mercenary." Everyone seems to look at mercenary motivation as shallow and negative, but let's not judge it too harshly. Almost all of us are motivated by money to some degree. Some of the best engineers I know are happy to sell their services to the highest bidder, as long as their career doesn't stagnate (since that would lower the price in the next round).

Every dollar you get paid, every bonus, every gift and stock option or share you get offered, all of that is a motivation to come work for an employer or to stay there. If your health plan gets cut or your options go underwater or, heaven forbid, your Christmas bonus gets reduced, that matters. If you have the choice between two companies with strong leaders and a vision you agree with, but one of them has a better chef, maybe you pick that one.

Another perk that people sometimes forget is social standing. If you work at a big, well-known company that people love, then you get instant respect just for saying you work there. That matters to some people more than others. I know people whose parents didn't understand what they did (and thought maybe they should have been a doctor or lawyer instead) until they said they worked at IBM or Google, and then finally their families accepted their career choice. Working at a place that gets featured in magazines for being one of the world's best workplaces isn't so bad either. And getting paid a lot, well, we all know money buys prestige.

Interestingly, people aren't too sensitive to the absolute value of their income, but they're really sensitive to relative values. They're always on the lookout for trendlines, because emotionally, that's all you can feel. It's kinda like how in a car you can feel acceleration, but you can't really feel velocity.

4. Loyalty to a social group or environment

Your social group is the people you work with. If this motivates you, then you don't want to let down your co-workers. Even if the project seems dumb and your leader is a jerk and the pay is rotten, if your teammates are all working hard, you'll show up and do your best to help them succeed, and you'll feel good about it afterwards.

On the other hand, you'll be sad if they lose perks. You'll be extra sad if one of the above motivators drops and your friends decide they don't want to work here anymore, which is different from caring about the perks directly, even though the net effect looks the same. You'll be sad if your leader makes a dumb decision and decides to communicate poorly, because now you can't trust them anymore, and you liked trusting them, because trust is the basis of a healthy team. You'll be sad if the product plan gets fuzzy and your friends get demotivated, because your friends were happier when they were motivated. You'll care when the culture starts to change, because you won't like the new people as much as the people who left. And a little more confusingly, you'll be sad if you even perceive that one of these things might be happening, even if the predicted outcome (your friends being hurt) hasn't visibly happened yet.

When you see someone with an opinion or a feeling about something that happens, see if you can slot it into one of the four categories. Maybe then you can understand them better, even if you don't feel the same way.

I'm CEO at Tailscale, where we make network problems disappear.

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