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Understanding the Nature of Motivation
By Rich Meiss • Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Motivation Series- Article I


 Her response surprised me.  I was leading a seminar on motivation and teambuilding in Peoria, IL, and I had just made the statement:  “All people are motivated”!  The usually quiet lady in the second row stood up and spoke out:  “Oh no they’re not”, she said emphatically.  “I would tell you that my son is not motivated.  He is 26 years old, he is still in college, he lives with us at home, he doesn’t have a job, he sleeps in until 10 AM – I don’t think he is very motivated!” 


I smiled at the woman and said, “Ma’am, I don’t mean to offend you.  However, I would say that your son is very motivated.  He is motivated to stay in college, not get a job, live off mom and dad, stay in bed until 10 AM – I think he is VERY motivated!”  The other participants nodded and smiled, and finally the lady said:  “OK, if you are going to describe motivation that way, I guess he is motivated!”


The point I was attempting to make is that all human beings have some form of motivation.  The challenge for many of us is that some people don’t have the “right” motivation, at least according to us.  We want them to be motivated like we are.


Of course we know that motivations vary.  One wise observer of human behavior said:  “People are motivated for their reasons, not your reasons, and because of that, you really can’t motivate other people.”   And if we really think about it, we all know that is true.


What is Motivation?


Motivation can be described as “the reason why people do what they do – that which compels people to action”.  It is often broken down into two types – external or “extrinsic” motivation, and internal or “intrinsic” motivation.  External motivation is that which is brought on by someone or something outside ourselves.  We often think of it as the “carrot” and the “stick” – rewards and/or punishment.  If we use this external definition of motivation, then it is possible for us to motivate others.


However, if we use the internal definition of motivation – “that which is within the individual that compels him or her to action” – then we would have to agree that we cannot motivate others.  All we can do is create a climate or culture in which people can motivate themselves.  And that is the purpose of this primer on motivation – to help us understand what drives other people so that we can create a climate in which they can motivate themselves.


Because people are already motivated, it becomes our challenge to figure out what motivates them.  There are three basic drives that motivate people – needs, values and thinking patterns.

A Hierarchy of Needs


In his landmark books on motivation*, author Abraham Maslow suggested that there is a hierarchy of needs that can be divided into three basic categories.


1)    Our most basic level of needs are physical.  We need food, air, water, clothing, shelter and sleep.  We also need a level of safety and security – both at a physical level and a psychological level.  We could describe these as the existence level of needs motivation.

2)    Next we move to the relational level needs.  This includes our need for a sense of “belonging” – of being part of a group or family.  This need for love and affection also includes a sense of love for ourselves, often called self esteem.  Self esteem encompasses two elements:  self worth, a love of self based on intrinsic value (every person has worth), and self respect, a love of self based on feeling good about what we actually do and how we do it.

3)    The final need level is the growth level.  This is the need to feel productive and fulfilled – what Maslow called “self-actualization”.  This is the highest level of motivation, and according to Maslow, only a small percentage of the population ever reaches this level.


In actuality, we all move up and down this pyramid of needs in our lives.  For example, a person may be operating at the relational level, having a good sense of self esteem and moving along in life, when suddenly they lose their job and are unemployed for some time.  Their sense of self may suffer during this time, and in fact, some might even become concerned about their ability to pay their mortgage or put food on the table, thus moving back to the existence level of needs.


Meeting Our Needs Through DISC Behaviors – How We Do What We Do


Here we will briefly examine the DISC model of human behavior.  This model helps us understand HOW we go about meeting these needs in our lives, and breaks down into four basic categories:



DThe Dominant or directing style individual has a need for control and challenging activities.  His/her style is determined, straightforward and motivated by competitive opportunities.  This person is direct and assertive.  We will use the term directer to describe this person.


IThe Influencing or interacting style needs to interact or persuade others to their point of view.  This person tends to be casual, talkative, and eager to please.  Because they focus their energy on others, we will call this style of person an interacter.


SThe Steadiness or supportive style individual has a high need for security and stability.  He/she is predictable, accountable, and typically low-key.  Known as a

supporter, this type of individual prefers to listen and do things for others rather than talk and come up with new ideas.


C The Cautious or calculating style has a high need for accuracy and caution.  They want to make sure things are done right, according to their high standards.  Because of their need to think things through and do them right, we call this style of person a calculater.


Each of us is a combination of all four of these styles, but we all have a preferred style by which we meet the needs in our lives.  It is this combination and diversity of styles that makes understanding and working with human beings so fascinating – and so frustrating.


Our Values Drives – Why We Do the Things We Do


If our needs motivation tells us “how” we do the things we do, our values motivation tells us “why” we do the things we do.  Our values are the inner rules (standards, principles) that we each use to make choices and run our lives.  Values influence every area of our lives, from the clothes we wear, the vehicles we drive, the work we do, and the relationships we develop.


It is possible to live our lives focused only on our needs, and therefore to minimize or neglect our values.  For example, say that I have been asked to complete a project that would require my working extra hours.  If I am tired and in need of some rest and relaxation, I may choose to miss the deadline and meet my need rather than living by the value of being responsive to other’s requests.


Most people, however, have made conscious choices about what is important to them and will therefore live by their values as well as their needs.  In the preceding example, if I value being responsible and working hard, I will find a way to meet the deadline and satisfy my fellow worker’s request.  Because people value different things, this helps us understand why some people will do certain things while others will do exactly the opposite.



The Values Model of Human Behavior


Next we will examine the differing values clusters that we and others hold.  By combining a series of personal values, we can create six different sets of values positions or clusters.  The six values clusters are as follows:


Social (Helping/People) An individual high in social values has a high desire to be helpful to others.  He or she often has trouble saying “no”, and is often a good coach or mentor to others.


Individualistic (Power/Influence) A person who has a strong score in this values cluster has strong ambitions and goals.  They are often impatient people who want to get results.


Traditional (Order/Structure)The person high in traditional values follows the rules and enforces the standards that have been set.  He/she is usually precise in the use of time, but may be overly rigid.


Utilitarian (Money/Resources) Those who have high utilitarian values are competitive minded, hard charging, and business focused.  Because of their focus on the bottom line and return on investment, they may become workaholics.


Aesthetic (Beauty/Harmony)Those high in aesthetic values have a deep appreciation for the environment and the settings in which they work and live.  They have a desire to express themselves creatively, and may not be attentive to task results.


Theoretical (Knowledge/Information) Those who score high in theoretical values have a strong desire to know a lot of information about a lot of things.  They are inquisitive and have lots of questions, but their tendency may be to bog down in details.


Most of us will have two of these six clusters that will tend to dominate our values motivation, supported by the other four clusters.  We will be examining the key characteristics of each of these values clusters, along with some practical applications of this information.


Thinking Patterns – The Foundation of What We Do


Our purpose in this article is to examine the motivations of people – what drives them to act the way they do.  So far we have looked at our actions from the perspective of two motivators – our needs motivation (our DISC style) and our values motivation (our six values clusters).  Now we will examine the foundational motivator of our actions, which is our thinking.


Imagine our actions as one big chain, starting with our thinking.  We notice something in our mind and we then evaluate it (thinking), which effects how we value it (values), and finally we choose to act or interact with it (style).  It is a chain of links, and our thinking is the first link in the chain, therefore the most powerful.  The overall ability of these links to shape our motivation and behavior lessens the further we move away from the beginning of the chain.


We have already learned that people act differently and value differently.  This third link helps us to understand that people also think differently – that they have different “thinking habits”.  And it is these different thinking patterns that complete the link in our motivational chain.



Our Six Thinking Modules


Dr. Robert Hartman, the founder of Axiology (the science of thinking), suggests that there are three distinct thinking patterns -people, tasks and systems - operating in two broad categories of thinking - external and internal.  By combining these, we come up with six thinking modules.


External Thinking                            Internal Thinking

(Thinking about the outside world)       (Thinking about our inner world)


Empathetic Thinking                       Self Esteem Thinking

(Thinking about the value of others)     (Thinking about the value of self)


Practical Thinking                          Role Awareness Thinking

(Thinking about task results)               (Thinking about our roles)


Systems Thinking                           Self Direction Thinking

(Thinking about rules and order)        (Thinking about our goals/direction)


The combinations of these six thinking patterns give us a huge variety of human actions and interactions, and further deepen our study of human motivation. 


I like to illustrate the interaction of these three motivators by comparing it to an iceberg. 

The tip of the iceberg is our behavior – what people see.  This includes how we do things – in more of a directing (D), interacting (I), supporting (S) or calculating (C) way.  While this is important in helping us describe human behavior, it is a smaller portion of the reasons why we do things.


Hidden just underneath the surface of the water is a bigger portion of the iceberg.  This represents our values motivation, sometimes called the “hidden motivators”.  This would include the values clusters of Social, Individualistic, Traditional, Utilitarian, Aesthetic and Theoretical.


The deepest and largest part of the iceberg is the lower portion.  This represents our thinking patterns.  What do we tend to use more or less, our Empathetic Thinking, Practical Thinking, Systems Thinking, Self Esteem Thinking, Role Awareness Thinking or Self Direction Thinking?


By putting these three models all together, we have a very powerful way of understanding human motivation and behavior.  By combining the how, why and what of our behavior, we can determine the “will” of motivation.  Whether or not a person will take the action, perform the task or do the thing is dependent on all three of these factors coming together in a powerful combination of motivators.



So Why Should I Care About These Three Motivators?


When we know about these three motivators – style, values and thinking – we have a better understanding of ourselves and our own motivations and behavior, and we can better understand others and their motivations and behavior.  Having this basic understanding gives us powerful information to use in a variety of applications, including:


-          Interviewing and hiring

-          Personal and professional development

-          Teambuilding and development

-          Management and supervision

-          Coaching and counseling

-          Communications and interpersonal relations

-          Conflict management

-          And other people development topics.


For basic training and coaching in interpersonal communications and relationships, we often start with the DISC model to give people a good understanding of how they do what they do.  This model is also useful for applications in teambuilding, management and coaching.


When we get into conflict management, building high performing teams, leadership applications and more, we add the values model to gain a deeper insight into the why of human behavior. 


And when we want to go to the deepest level of human motivation to understand what people do, we use the thinking patterns model.  This allows us the opportunity to look at the foundation of all human behavior and help people utilize their thinking strengths and minimize their thinking limitations.  This model is useful in coaching, personal and professional development, and advanced interpersonal relationship development.


To gain maximum impact in any of these applications, we use a combination of all three models.  In interviewing and hiring, for example, we want a sense of the person’s behavioral style, values and thinking patterns.  By matching the needs of the job in these three areas with the person’s natural strengths, we can make excellent hiring decisions.


Additional articles explore in more depth each of the three models individually, and the next two pages give a list of books, profiles and other reference materials on these models.


© Copyright 2008.  Meiss Education Institute.  All rights reserved.



For more information on the assessments, reports and tools referenced above, along with pricing information, please call Meiss Education Institute at 952-446-1586, or contact Meiss Education Institute at





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