The driving force behind every aspect of business is human motivation. From the CEO to managers, collaterals, workers, and, finally, customers, each bit of purposeful action is motivated. Think of the power of a magnet. What gives magnets their remarkable strength is that the tiny magnetic crystals from which they are made become aligned in the same direction. When that happens, they can exert an extraordinary pull. That is exactly what happens when every component of a business is aligned with the desires of its customers.
For this reason, human motivation is perhaps the most fundamental and important subject a business person might strive to understand. Let’s start with the customer. What has come clear in the last 50 years is that what was taught in economics class was grossly oversimplified. It was assumed that money was a direct measure of motivation. Now we know that the relationship between desire and monetary value is complex and nonlinear.
The most eye-opening work on motivation in recent years, comes, from the late Jaak Panksepp, the neurophysiologist who learned to tickle rat pups. We already knew from the study of addictions that dopamine was involved in all mammalian motivational systems, and that drugs that stimulated dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, made animals and people want more. The subtlety that Dr. Panksepp brought was to see the power and range of this system and how it is responsible for both pleasure and discouragement. He called it the SEEKING system and described it as a kind of organ within the brain that is capable of linking with any imaginable goal and providing pleasurable reinforcement as long as the goal is being pursued. When obstacles block our way or hope of eventual success begins to fade, the system depowers itself and we experience discouragement or even depression.
Think of golf. As Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow, points out, Golf is the perfect motivator. The game presents a series of goals that are attainable, but challenging. This activates the SEEKING system to the max. We are highly motivated to get the ball into the cup. Once the goal is met, then the SEEKING system shuts down, and there is a feeling of letdown, but the game of golf is smart enough to present a new goal as soon as the last one has been achieved. Interest is maintained and with the seeking of each goals comes a physiological feeling of pleasure. Then at the end there is a chance to turn to a different kind of pleasure as we celebrate or commiserate over food and drink.
In business, the concept of “demand” utterly fails to capture the true nature of what makes customers want to buy. Once the necessities of life are assured, then marketing is the art of lighting up the customer’s SEEKING system. Ferrari seeds its customers motivation starting in the teens with posters on the wall of beautiful, unreachable red cars. Then it feeds them with t-shirts and caps. Talking to friends brings in social reinforcement, keeping the SEEKING system energized. Maybe they see a car on the road capturing all attention until it’s song is no longer audible. And, for a few, following years of dreaming, the possibility of owning and being seen in one, at last, becomes a possibility. Then there is the wait to become a customer and the trip to Italy to take delivery. All this time, the customer’s SEEKING system is activated, providing pleasure and energy.
For some this scenario provides a rich source of pleasure. But for others, their dreams fall elsewhere. All humans have a SEEKING system. The instinct to connect socially is almost universal, hence Facebook. There are common themes, but each human has unique values, dreams and desires. My experience as a therapist suggests that around age five, we first see our lives as an arc extending into time future. That’s when fairy tales begin to enthrall the young child, and it is when future goals begin to be formed. From there, goals are further shaped by experience. The process is complex and, once again, heavily influenced by contact with others. The end result is the rich mosaic of individual fantasies and wishes that fuel the SEEKING system to find and lock onto the product that business has decided to offer.
This same motivational system is what makes the difference between disengaged, rote performance on the part of employees and pleasurable energized engagement with the work of inflaming the customer’s desire. In the 19th Century, maybe authority and money really were the main motivators in business, but they aren’t any more.
So what do we all respond to? We humans are profoundly social animals. We don’t respond to being treated as objects or statistics. From babyhood to old age, we respond most to being respected and seen as unique individuals. The more we feel this recognition, the more likely we are to be motivated. Brené Brown, in her recent book, Dare to Lead, shows that leaders who dare to be real and vulnerable, and who really listen to their reports are the most successful. This is why formulaic approaches don’t work, and why salespeople who know how to connect are still needed. It’s why personally created content touches us and why managers who attune to the individual person of their reports have a more engaged workforce. Does your report like Ferraris or fly fishing? What’s up with her grandchildren? This unique biological driver can be aided and extended by technology, but not replaced. Far more than money or any other fungible commodity, connection with each person’s uniqueness is what can align every member of the workforce with the desires of the company and the dreams of the customer.