What motivates different people?

Posted 20 May 2024 by
Lucy Bellec, Trainer with The Myers-Briggs Company


7 min. read

Psychologists have proposed many different theories of what motivates people. These theories are often called content theories in that they relate to the content or object of motivation.  

Several of the most prominent content theories focus specifically on needs: they argue that we all have certain needs that we are motivated to satisfy. The stronger the need, the more motivated we are.

Motivation and needs

Perhaps the best-known needs theory of motivation is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow suggested that we all have five universal, instinctual needs arranged in a hierarchy of importance. At the bottom of the hierarchy are basic physiological needs (such as those for food, water, and shelter) as well as safety needs. Above those are higher-order needs for belonging, esteem, and ultimately self-actualization.i

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Importantly, Maslow believed that each of the lower-order needs must be satisfied before the higher-order needs can motivate. In other words, a person won’t be motivated to seek belonging or esteem if they can’t even meet their needs for food and safety.

In practice, what this might mean is that workers won’t be motivated to excel in their jobs and strive for a shared goal if they’re not earning enough money or are worried about their job security. Already this suggests an important starting point for leaders to reward followers: to ensure they’re paid appropriately and treated fairly. However, the practical usefulness of Maslow’s hierarchy is quite limited if we want to understand what motivates people beyond these broad strokes. Maslow believed that the order of the hierarchy is the same for everyone, but what if belonging, esteem, and self-actualization are actually more or less important—or even mean different things—to different people, depending on their personality?

The FIRO® framework, developed by Will Schutz, offers an alternative perspective of human needs, rooted in these personality differences.ii

According to the framework, all of us have certain physiological needs, but also three social needs that are just as essential: Inclusion (the need to belong and be involved in groups), Control (the need for influence and authority in decision-making), and Affection (the need for closeness and intimacy in one-on-one relationships). Like Maslow’s hierarchy, the FIRO framework holds that these social needs are universal. We all have them to some degree. Crucially, however, this degree can differ from person to person, such that one need is more important than the others.

FIRO Framework

Put another way: different people might rank the needs differently in their own personal hierarchy.

We call the dominant need the core driver. This is what drives and motivates each person the most. It’s what we work hardest to establish and would be least willing to give up.

For example, perhaps Dan’s core driver is Affection and he feels less motivated by Inclusion, and even less by Control. However, Control is what motivates Ravi the most. For Sara, it’s Inclusion.

Let’s explore what might this look like in real terms:

What does this all mean for leaders?

In an ideal world, leaders would know the core driver of each follower to make sure they’re meeting followers’ most important needs.

In practice, this is very rarely the case. Nevertheless, a valuable starting point is at least being aware that different people will be motivated by different needs—and that a leader’s own personal needs will likely influence their leadership style too.

Motivation and preferences

Another approach to understanding the content of motivation considers preferences.

The MBTI® framework says that we all have certain preferences for how we approach the world:

Importantly, we are most intrinsically motivated when we can approach tasks and people in a way that aligns with our preferences. This helps us feel energized, engaged, and fulfilled.

In contrast, we might feel drained, disengaged—even stressed—if we’re pressured to act in a way that doesn’t align with our preferences.

For example:

A key takeaway here is that motivation might look different from the outside compared to how it’s experienced on the inside.

Our definition of motivation above emphasized goal-directed action: motivation is about doing things, to achieve a predetermined goal.

But within the MBTI framework, we can see the picture is a bit more complex.

Someone might not dive straight into action on a task or speak up much at a team meeting, but this doesn’t mean they’re not motivated or engaged. Perhaps they just have a preference for Introversion and want to spend time in reflection first to work out the right way forward.

Likewise, someone might not organize their projects methodically, scheduling subtasks in their diary, but this doesn’t mean they’re lazy or disorganized. Maybe they have a preference for Perceiving and want to keep open different possibilities for how to achieve the end goal.

So far, we’ve considered single preferences in isolation. Let’s explore some examples where we put the preferences together to consider whole types:

In practice, it’s unlikely a leader would know the MBTI preferences of all their followers. Even if they did, it wouldn’t be possible to perfectly tailor each individual’s tasks and environment to their preferences, such that they were all maximally motivated.

Nevertheless, what leaders can do is give them as much freedom as possible to work in a way that suits them, sometimes called “job crafting.” Psychologists have found that when people are able to craft their jobs to suit their personalities, they are usually more motivated, more satisfied, and more productive.

To read the rest of this article on motivation, which looks at how to inspire and sustain motivation using Porter and Lawler’s expectancy theory, download the Psychology of Leadership ebook.


i Abraham H. Maslow, Motivation and Personality (New York: Harper & Row, 1954).
ii Will Schutz, FIRO: A Three-Dimensional Theory of Interpersonal Behavior (New York: Rinehart, 1958).