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What Motivates People? Look for Clues in How They Think (VIDEO)

In today’s business world, where the large majority of the work is knowledge work, each day can be different and challenging in its own way. Constant change means that most employees are dealing with simultaneous projects, shifting priorities, complex problems, lots of demands, and a never-ending stream of disruptions and distractions.

It’s not just a challenge to stay focused in this environment; it’s hard to stay motivated and engaged. In fact, recent research by Bersin by Deloitte attributes low employee engagement levels to the overwhelmed employee.

But removing all the stressors—or even all the distractions—of today’s work environment isn’t realistic. For some, it may not even be helpful. When it comes to what motivates people, everyone is unique, and that singular motivation comes from within.

Audio track provided by AthenaOnline.

So it’s not the manager’s job to motivate employees. But it is the manager’s job to unleash their inner motivation. By understanding how your employees prefer to think, you can pick up some valuable clues about what will motivate them.

That’s because the way people think and process information affects not just how they go about their work but also the kind of work that stimulates them and the kind of conditions they work best in. When you understand how your employees think, you’ll have a better understanding of what they need to feel fulfilled, engaged and motivated to give it their all, even when the pressure’s on.

Here’s a closer look at what each of the four thinking preferences of the Whole Brain® Model needs and how you can begin to unleash the inner motivation of different thinkers on your team.

A quadrant:

Needs accuracy, data, clarity of purpose, logical and rational basis for doing something

Ideas for unleashing inner motivation in the A quadrant:

  • Ask for input on breaking down and solving complex challenges.
  • Focus on the bottom-line impact of decisions, backed up by facts.
  • Allow opportunities for thinking critically and taking decisive action, and provide access to necessary data, technology, research and tools.
  • Be clear about goals, accountabilities and purpose.

B quadrant:

Needs order, structure, safety, rules, details, well-articulated plans, consistency

Ideas for unleashing inner motivation in the B quadrant:

  • Ask for input on how to implement and execute on critical strategies in the midst of chaos or tight deadlines.
  • Focus on the ethics, risk management and quality impact of decisions.
  • Allow opportunities for self-management and singularity of focus.
  • Be clear about agendas, timeframes and expectations.

C quadrant:

Needs to “talk it out,” collaborate, express ideas, teach others, understand the human impact

Ideas for unleashing inner motivation in the C quadrant:

  • Ask for input on improving trust, relationships and customer value.
  • Focus on values and the human impact of decisions.
  • Allow opportunities for connection and collaboration (e.g., video-enabled virtual meetings, communication tools like Slack, etc.) — especially important for those working virtually.
  • Check in regularly and ask for feedback/”pulse checks.”

D quadrant:

Needs flexibility, simultaneity, creativity, non-structured environment, opportunity to experiment and take risks, understanding of the big picture

Ideas for unleashing inner motivation in the D quadrant:

  • Ask for input on ways to challenge the status quo and come up with breakthrough solutions.
  • Focus on context and long-term, strategic impact of decisions.
  • Allow opportunities for thinking creatively, trying out lots of different ideas and learning from failures, and provide the freedom to experiment.
  • Use metaphors and “paint a picture” of your vision of the future.

No matter how someone prefers to think, each of us becomes more motivated when we’re able to spend more time on the work that most stimulates us and when we have a say over how that work gets done.

Now that you better understand what motivates people, take the next step in developing the next generation of leaders.


Tags: human resources, Thinking Styles, Productivity, Thinking Preferences, management development, employee engagement, employee retention

The four-color, four-quadrant graphic, HBDI® and Whole Brain® are trademarks of Herrmann Global, LLC.



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