are motivation and drive innate or learned?

27 11 2006

on his blog, david maister has sparked a nice dialogue regarding how some people seem to be driven and others are more satisfied to put in their 9-to-5 and pick up their paycheck.  while a number of his readers picked the question about motivation – what is it and who has it, david re-focused the group on a second question of where it comes from:

Do you think there are any generalizations we can make about why
some people have the will, determination and drive to excel, while
others do not? Genes? Parenting? Social Background? Paranoia and

And what does you explanation / hypothesis say about
building an organization (of any kind, commercial, governmentall,
not-for profit)? What kind of selection processes should organizations
use to identify such people?

this was my comment in response.  what do you think?  i’ve included some links at this end of this post to previous posts of mine that are relevant to this discussion:

fair enough to call us back to the original question, david.  i
guess i skipped it because it’s really a question that no longer fits
the answer.  the nature vs. nuture question is a relic because brain
science, child learning, biology, and cognitive science have all come
to similar discoveries.

it’s both and…..

we are born with rudimentary knowledge and skills and a very curious disposition.  this initial base of knowledge and skills is
added to and molded by experience.  the process of adding to our
knowledge, reflecting on what we know, what we’ve forgotten and what we
need to learn (or relearn) continues on throughout our lifetime.

perhaps, if all environmental inputs were identical for all of us, we’d
all end up in the same place.  but life presents us each with a unique
set of experiences.  some experiences move us ahead, some hold us back. some of us are born with a silver spoon in our mouths with every
advantage and end up holding up banks at gun point.  while some of us
are born into the direst socio-economic conditions, denied education,
imprisoned yet end up a freely elected leader of a country and a world
recognized humanitarian.

it seems we have an innate motivation to learn and grow that is either
encouraged or discouraged by the events of our lives.  this would mean
that managers do have a role in increasing (or decreasing) employee
motivation.  what is encouraging to me about this understanding is that
we don’t have to create the core motivation – it’s in us from birth.

throughout life, we amass "cognitive rubble."  this might include major
issues like prejudice or resentments.  but it also includes minor
issues like blindspots in our network,  biases in work processes, fear
of change, unidimensional styles, bad habits, lack of knowledge or
skills, lack of experience, unclear goals, misunderstandings, etc. helping to clear the rubble from the mess created by our individual
pasts and then keeping things clear so that employees can find and
nurture their innate drive to grow and learn is definitely part of
manager’s role.

certainly, if I’m a hiring manager, i will try to find an employee who
has the smallest rubble pile.  it just makes sense.  but i hope i would
have also identified those key factors of the job and what character
traits fit and don’t fit the position.  if the job calls for 75%
travel, i better probe to see what the candidate thinks about being
away from home.

but no hiring process is going to find out every character quirk of
each employee.  So organizations need to be built in a manner that
fosters diversity of style and character.  that draws strength from
differences.   the goal is to enable individual employees to bring the
best that they are to the table for the benefit of the organization.

related posts on e e learning:

brain and learning principles

how team leaders show support

tearing down strawmen



One response

28 11 2006
Tom Haskins

Dave: You come across as having the sense to do the right thing when it’s time to be selective among candidates and when it’s time to cultivate each individual. I suspect that’s because you see “it’s both” when it comes to nature vs. nurture, andragogy vs. pedagogy, and corporate obligations vs. community expectations. Where so many make trouble for themselves is taking an “all or nothing” approach. Some managers treat everyone as an outsider to be controlled and excluded. Their insiders resent being sorted like outsiders when it means getting “put out of sorts” or exposed as inferior. Insiders appreciate getting sorted into groups, teams and identities based on their compatibility and potential synergy – or as you said: “in a manner that fosters diversity of style and character — that draws strength from differences”.

Another way to see “it’s both” deals with customers vs. employees. When there is no difference, it makes perfect sense to serve employees like they are internal customers. They feel well served and then serve their constituencies in the same vein. Internal customers do not need the products sold to external customers. They need to be debriefed, understood, and supported through change processes. Serving employees then satisfies the goal I share with you: “to enable individual employees to bring the best that they are to the table for the benefit of the organization”. This approach also turns the customers into “external employees”: champions, evangelists, citizen marketers and watchdogs.

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