Locke and Latham suggested that all behaviors – irrespective of their apparent nature – are driven by unmet needs. Content-based approaches help us understand how needs coupled with individual characteristics such as personality traits and attitudes drive certain behavior.
Firstly, it is important to understand that human needs are of two types – universal needs and trait-based needs.
As the name suggests, universal needs indicate the core needs that all of us have. To understand the nature of universal needs, we must look into the theories that explain it. One such theory is the Self Determination Theory. It states that all of us have the need for autonomy (freedom of choice), relatedness (sense of belonging) and competence (personal need for mastery).
Self Determination Theory manifests itself in the work set-up through the employees’ personal preferences. For example, no one likes to be micromanaged by their bosses because it diminishes their sense of autonomy at the workplace.
Similarly, almost everyone seeks out camaraderie with their team members as it enhances their sense of belongingness which further creates psychological safety. Naturally, when employees trust their leaders and peers, they thrive. Gallup’s 12 question employee engagement survey, dedicates one question (“I have a best friend at work”) to the importance of having meaningful friendships at work to increase overall engagement.
Lastly, we know that an artist would not apply for a role of a CFO and vice-versa. Which is another way of saying that all of us seek work opportunities that are in alignment with who we are and what we can do well i.e. we seek work environments where we believe we have a fair chance of succeeding. Thus, the need for competence decides where we will invest our time and attention and the job we seek .
Another set of universal needs are personal trait-based needs. These traits are usually different for different people. Studies on these needs explain how individual attitude and personality can affect employee behavior at work.
Most organizations map their employee personalities according to the Big 5 Personality Trait Model, namely Extraversion, Agreeableness, Openness, Conscientiousness and Neuroticism. It helps them allocate responsibilities according to the individual’s natural tendencies.
For example, individual’s with a higher degree of Extraversion enjoy social interactions and are more outgoing. As a result, they tend to thrive in sales and seek out status.
On the other hand, people high on Conscientiousness, have a higher need for autonomy and achievement.
From experience, we know that these needs drive our course of action at work and life - we strive for promotions to achieve social status and financial freedom, we resign when we don’t feel comfortable in the social dynamics of our workplace or when our relationships with peers are not on the right track.
However, as the need-behavior cycle suggests that only motivation cannot drive behavior change. It needs to be coupled with the right goals that inspire them to act in certain ways. This brings us to the second approach to workplace motivation.