The Key To Team Effectiveness: Individual Motivation

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At the heart of the collaboration framework and tools my team and I developed is one paradoxical insight: Developing team effectiveness starts with understanding individual motivation. It’s counter-intuitive, isn’t it? We’ve focused for years on theories about how groups function. It’s not that those are wrong. It’s just group theory and tools by themselves are an incomplete approach. How did we land on this insight? It began while I was working at Mars, Inc.

“I know we should collaborate more…”

By the time I conducted my research at Mars, I’d worked with over 125 teams and administered surveys and interviews to most of them. This one quote, or something like it, kept coming up in the interviews: “I know we should collaborate more, we just don’t.” I didn’t know what to make of it. Why would smart, motivated people like the Associates at Mars not do what was expected of them? Then that word triggered me: motivated. It occurred to me to dig back into my recent past, to my days at IBM, where understanding individual motivation was the core of my work.


I worked for three years as an internal executive coach at IBM. They trained us in a model based on David McClelland’s research into motivations. This Harvard professor was particularly interested in motives as a part of manager behavior and effectiveness. He identified three critical ones, which he also referred to as “needs”: the need for power, the need for affiliation, and the need for achievement. These needs are largely outside of our consciousness, established early in life, persist over time and are not easily changed. Here’s how I describe them:

Power – The need to be, or to be seen as,influential. People with a strong power need enjoy directing or guiding the activities of others. In some cases, they are equally motivated by the trappings of power, such as corner offices, executive parking spaces and the like.

Affiliation – The need to be with and interact with others. Those with a strong affiliation need get great satisfaction from the social side of work: both in the office and at outside events.

Achievement – A deep need for accomplishment and excellence. Those with a high achievement motive get great satisfaction from doing and completing tasks to a high standard, checking them off a list and being recognized for doing so.

These needs don’t interact with or play off each other in any way. You may be high in all three, low in two and high on one, low on all three or some other combination. The typical Mars Associate, based on my analysis of my interview data had a relatively low need for power, a moderate need for affiliation and most importantly, a high need for achievement. I realized that it was this last need that was getting in the way of collaboration and what our framework had to address.

The Mind Hack

Mars, like a lot of companies, usually hired highly achievement-driven individuals. The company cared less about academic pedigrees (symbols of status and power which were a big deal at IBM) and instead were interested in hard-working, self-starters. This achievement need came to dominate the culture. Don’t get me wrong; Mars Associates enjoyed affiliating with others; Mars is and was a place for fostering relationships. But it was the need for achievement that held sway.

You know the old expression, “If want something done right, do it yourself?”  The typical, achievement-driven Mars Associate took great pride at being good at their job and getting it done. Sure, they sought help if needed but mostly they did fine on their own. Working with others slows things down and gets complicated with the need for frequent communication and coordination. If things don’t go well, there’s the specter of conflict. Going solo was the norm even though most Mars Associates prided themselves on being helpful. And so Mars prospered propelled by an exceptional collection of results-focused driven individuals.

Still, Mars leadership knew that they needed more, and more effective, collaboration. So, the puzzle we faced was, “How do you get highly individually motivated people to turn their energy and attention to collaboration?” The answer came quickly based on my experience with motives: You have to make collaboration feel as compelling as people’s individual work, as if collaboration were just one more thing for them to achieve.

I have professional colleagues who call this the collaboration “mind hack.” I love that. We decided to tap into people’s motivational wiring in an unexpected way to get the opposite of what they normally preferred. Once we embraced this mind hack, we were able to build the framework and tools that did just this and enabled teams to get consistently better results. I’ll discuss how we did that in upcoming podcasts and posts.

Carlos Valdes-Dapena