Motivation and Why Wikipedia is Free

Bit of psychology 101...but bear with me for a couple of paragraphs...

...American psychologist Abraham Maslow organized his theory of motivation into a pyramid, or hierarchy, of needs with five levels. The lower order needs at the bottom of the pyramid taking precedence over the needs higher up the pyramid.

Our basic, or bodily, needs are found at the base of the pyramid. The drives that arise from these needs require fulfilment and take precedence over the higher needs. At the second level we find the needs that provide a sense of continuity; that tomorrow is going to be similar to today. The third level is about our need to feel part of a community and to experience connection with other human beings. The fourth level provides the drives to achieve, to be self-confident and to accomplish tasks and projects. The highest level is the level of spirituality and personal growth.

Any interruption or disturbance at the lower levels will affect the intensity of motivation higher up the pyramid.

What does this mean in practice?

  • Someone who is desperately tired or hungry will not be highly motivated to enter into deep and meaningful discussion about their relationship with their spouse.
  • Someone who is worried about losing their job is unlikely to perform at the peak of their ability – at least not for any length of time.
  • Someone who has had an argument with their manager is unlikely to feel spiritually fulfilled.
  • Someone who can no longer pay their mortgage bills will have little mental bandwidth for being a top team player.

Now turn Maslow upside down...

Maslow got it only half right with regard to the work environment: the model also works the other way around – or upside down. In fact, in the workplace, the model is more likely to work from top to bottom. We are social beings; we crave social recognition and appreciation and avoid social pain. Any damage caused at a higher level may undermine the status quo at lower levels.

An employee who has their self-esteem severely dented by their boss may return to their workgroup and sabotage a project in order to seek revenge. When this political sabotage is discovered the employee may be fired, leading to loss of income and security.

Basically, people work well because they enjoy working. They work for fulfilment, to achieve a sense of accomplishment, to do something they are proud of. This is best evidenced by the information technology industry’s free Open Source movement – this is software written by volunteers across the world for no reward. Linux is a major computer operating system comprising some 15 million lines of code representing over a thousand person-years of development – and it’s free. Linux runs much of our corporate computing across the world and is also (partly) used in smartphones, such as the Google Android system. Wikipedia is another example: a free online encyclopaedia, written by thousands of individuals for no reward other than esteem from their peers and some element of immortality.

So what is it that motivates people who work nine to five for a salary to go home and spend their free time applying their creativity for no material remuneration? The answer lies in the upper levels of Maslow. It is our desire for autonomy, mastery and purpose [i]. Autonomy is the desire to be self-directing, to feel that we are not being controlled by someone else but that we are in control. It appeals to a fundamental longing for freedom that is a part of the human nature. Mastery appeals to our need for self-esteem and achievement and is the reason that people have creative hobbies such as painting, making music, playing games, or writing for little or no financial reward. Purpose gives us a reason for being, a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

There are lessons for the agile organization in following Maslow ‘upside down’ – by encouraging an environment where people have autonomy over their work, enjoy realistic deadlines, can be good at what they do and have a purpose to believe in.

[i] Dan Pink gives an excellent talk with RSAnimate on YouTube hereHis book on the subject is The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Riverhead Book



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