News & Insight
March 2013

Satisfying the Four Basic Human Drives

Background Case

It is well known, throughout the site, that the drug discovery team is broken. They have been through their third team leader in three years. Their meetings are characterized by disagreements, hostile remarks and passive aggressive behavior. Team members are not completing their assignments or even their monthly reports. And some members have asked to leave the team. What is wrong here?

In spite of the team’s issues, when we looked behind the curtain we found a number of strengths. All the members were well paid, and were working toward a drug that had real market potential. They were competent in their respective scientific disciplines and most kept up with the research in the field. And in spite of the economy, the company is solid and the members’ jobs are relatively secure.

The most visible cause of the team’s problems seems to be their relationships with each other. Members criticize other members behind each other’s backs. They don’t trust each other, worrying that colleagues will steal their ideas or their deserved recognition. These symptoms are causing dysfunction in the team.
Recognizing this, the OD consultants focused on strengthening relationships in the team. This included work on conflict resolution, behavioral (re)contracting, collaborative decision making, along with coaching for the team leaders and key members. As OD professionals, we looked at this situation through the perspective of the Four-Drive theory, originally developed by Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria. This theory defines the four powerful and innate human drives that motivate all discretionary behavior. The drives are:
All humans possess the four drives but different individuals may engage some or all of the drives to different degrees. Some individuals may favor one or more of the drives, such as a very friendly, warm-hearted person who favors the bonding drive, or a very combative, defensive person who favors the defending drive. In extreme cases, such as sociopathic behavior, an individual may appear to lack any of the behaviors associated with a particular drive (e.g. empathy and the bonding drive).

The Four-Drive Theory

  1. Acquiring – The drive to acquire material goods, power, and social status.
  2. Bonding – The drive to engage in positive personal relationships that create feelings of belonging, camaraderie and unity.
  3. Learning – The drive to make sense out of the world, to find meaning, to satisfy our natural curiosity, to solve problems and to overcome challenges.
  4. Defending – The drive to respond to a threat to ourselves – physical and/or psychological, our status, our organization, or our ideas.

For most people, when the four drives are fulfilled, they become engaged and operate at their fullest capacity. When one or more drive is unsatisfied, motivation begins to lag, often resulting in unwanted consequences. Knowing this can make the Four-Drive model a powerful tool for creating effective and motivated organizations. For example, one of our clients uses the model to create gap analyses: they assess the strengths and development needs of their culture and subsequently calibrate organizational practices accordingly, in order to maximize appeal to direct reports, teams, and their organization’s members as a whole. In essence, it is both an assessment and a developmental tool.
To assess and establish a baseline (or: to create a snapshot) of organizational effectiveness, leaders can ask a series of questions to determine how the organization is satisfying each of the four drives.

Using the Four-Drive Model to Assess and Develop Organizations

To assess and establish a baseline (or: to create a snapshot) of organizational effectiveness, leaders can ask a series of questions to determine how the organization is satisfying each of the four drives.

To assess the satisfaction of the Acquiring Drive, they can ask:

  • How competitive is our compensation?
  • Do our types of recognition match the needs of our people?
  • Do we allow our people to own their work and achieve a sense of completion?

To assess the satisfaction of the Bonding Drive, they can ask:

  • How well do our people work in teams?
  • How do we encourage and conduct communication?
  • Do well do we encourage the expression of humor? How is humor expressed? How is it appreciated?

To assess the satisfaction of the Learning Drive, they can ask:

  • How do we provide and fund training?
  • How receptive are our people to feedback?
  • How and to what degree do we encourage experimentation ?

To assess the Defending Drive, we can ask:

  • How do we allow or encourage our people to defend their ideas? Their reputations?
  • How do we express and resolve disagreements and conflicts in our organization?
  • How do we allocate resources?

We recommend asking these questions formally (e.g. surveys) and informally on a regular basis. The results should be shared with all participants in a timely basis.


© 2013 Andy Satter & Daniel White. All Rights Reserved

WJM Faculty member Andrew Satter coaches leaders – high potentials and senior executives—and consults in the design and facilitation of team alignments and organizational change initiatives. Andrew has co-published two studies on mentoring and talent engagement, and was the 2009 recipient of the John Henry Hobart Fellowship for Leadership Development.

Daniel White is an OD consultant and leadership coach. He designs and facilitates innovative programs that enable clients to learn new skills and ways of thinking. As a consultant, he has worked with organizations in pharmaceuticals, finance, media, and education. Prior to consulting, Dan was Director of OD at Citibank. He currently teaches OD at St. John’s.

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