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May 2023

Understanding the Three Motivational Levels


Most psychometric, personality, survey or self-perception inventory tests have a fatal flaw that is almost impossible to erase, and that is the problem of honesty. An employee who is afraid of being made redundant is unlikely, for example, to answer a question that measures their abilities as a “team player” honestly if they think that the truthful answer will lead to them being gotten rid of. Most questions used in psychometric tests are woefully obvious, rather like the tests that you see when applying for a travel-visa: “Do you have any affiliation with terrorist groups?” Has anyone in the history of the world ever answered that question with a “yes”? If you were, you would never be honest about that fact.

Naturally, this is an extreme example, but we see time and again that employees are very easily able to work out what’s really being asked of them beneath the corporate language of a psychometric or personality test, and therefore neatly customise their answers to provide the picture that they think their employer wants to see, rather than what really is.

Motivational Maps, on the other hand, neatly circumnavigates this problem, because rather than asking employees to “grade” themselves, as for example on the Likert or some other scale, it instead asks them to express preference between two equally valid options. In other words, there is no moral judgement being made upon the employee, simply one of preference and want.

However, solving this problem does create another one, and even the Motivational Maps can sometimes – though rarely - give a “false” result.

In other words, a result that does not really represent what the motivators of the person really are, or perhaps more exactly, it may represent them, but the reality has been overlaid by some other factor in the psyche of the individual. Now, we know what to look for in spotting false results: patterns in the numbers which clearly suggest a representational intention to miscommunicate what the real motivational profile is. I do not intend to examine how we identify these false results here, as I have dealt with the issue elsewhere, but I am interested in exploring why this happens; and this leads us directly on to the question of the three levels of motivation.

When we think of motivation, we think about what the word really means: motor + action, or motive-to-action, or movement-to-action. And what is the motor that makes the movement to action? Clearly, it is e-motion, or emotion. Our emotions are the powerhouses that produce our energy and so drive us forward. But these emotions can be healthy, which lead to a useful and accurate map; or less than healthy. In other words, negative emotions, and these can lead to false results.

My discovery of this phenomenon occurred whilst I was doing pro bono work for The Prince’s Trust some years ago, and my job was to mentor ex-offenders who has been released from prison. The intention was to help them get back on the straight and narrow by being enabled to develop entrepreneurial skills and through setting up small, self-employed businesses. So far as this went, it was a good idea, and I mentored a number of them. But I noticed in each case that although they all did a Motivational Map and agreed their Map was accurate, none of them actually behaved in a way which corresponded with their so-called motivators. The distinction I made then was between their needs and their wants, and I reckoned, extrapolating from my experience in corporates and other businesses, that what I was talking about applied, probably, to some 10-15% of the population. Namely, that no matter what the Motivational Map revealed, if the self-esteem was at a certain low point, then the motivators were replaced by survival needs: and we could see this clearly charted on the Maslow Hierarchy. See Fig 1.


Motivational maps and maslow

Fig 1: From Mapping Motivation: James Sale, Routledge 2016

In the area ‘beneath’ the safety needs, we find the Biological and Physiological needs, (notice they are ‘greyed’ out) and these are essentially what I am calling ‘survival’ needs - they go way beyond ‘safety’ needs, for safety needs are essentially ‘wants’: wants are psychologically healthy, but needs, whilst necessary, are not so blessed for reasons we will see.

So, in reflecting on this further, I would like to make a three-fold distinction here that I think coaches will find useful. Driving our behaviours are, first, our true ‘wants’ that we call our motivators; but also driving them are our needs and, I think, these fall into two classifications.

At the lowest level, which is to say the most impairing, negative and dysfunctional, we have the needs which are based on the primary emotion of fear. Fear has often been said to be the root negative emotion. We have expressions like ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ in order to try to give us confidence to counteract its effects. James Hollis writes perceptively of it when he says, ‘… the power of the mother experience, for men and women, is, generally speaking, the single greatest psychological influence in our lives… her fears, unlived life, and projected desires become part of the internal mythology of the child … from which he must escape in order to fully actualise himself.’ Notice he says ‘her fears’, first and foremost, which shape the child – and that we all have to escape from if we are to fully self-actualise. But how do we spot this fear?

Individuals who are racked by fear find themselves always using this sort of expression: I must do … this or that. I must do my homework, I must get this report completed, I must go to the club, I must get married/have a partner, I must earn a six-figure sum, I must travel the world and see everything, I must help people, I must go to church/synagogue/mosque … You get the drift. They are under a dreadful compulsion, and one much like that described in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem, The Ancient Mariner. Interestingly, the Ancient Mariner had committed a crime – he has killed the albatross – and so he has to (has to = must) regale one in three persons he meets with his story. It’s a kind of confession, based upon an atavistic sense of guilt. Does this ring a bell? It should when you read all the LinkedIn posts from those going on about Imposter Syndrome: guilt, not good enough, and confessing it (albeit with the view of attempting to remedy the problem). The point is, though: they must do this confession!

But the second level of needs, which is also negative, but not so strongly as fear, is duty. Duty, too, is linked with guilt, only this time not the total dread or fear of absolute wrong-doing, but more the guilt that comes from a moral perfectionism. We spot duty when we see the words shift from ‘I must …’ to ‘I should … or, I ought to’. I should visit my mother. I should be kind. I ought to be patient. I should be punctual / reliable / helpful. I should pay my fair share. I ought to give more to charity. I should let somebody else have a turn … and so on. And we clearly see this kind of duty resulting largely from parental/carer inputs when we are very young. Take my last example: ‘James, [you should] let your brother/sister have turn.’ Ring a bell?

The thing in the West is that we have a much-diminished view of duty than do some Eastern cultures where it assumes a much more positive aspect. For instance, in the Tao Te Ching, we learn ‘Therefore: whosoever has Life adheres to his duty; whosoever does not have Life adheres to his right.’ Adhering to one’s right is very Western: all rights, and very few responsibilities! According to James Swartz in his book, How to Attain Enlightenment, ‘The Vedic model, which is responsible for the relative stability of marriage in India, is a duty-based approach; the idea being that happiness lies in fulfilling one’s duties and obligations to the family, caste, occupation and religion first and to one’s personal needs second. Not only is such a view conducive to social harmony, it neutralises likes and dislikes and makes it possible to eventually fulfil the primary duty to one’s self – freedom through self-realisation.’ I have little doubt this true, but we in the West do not experience it in that liberating way. As Dr Susan Rhodes noted, ‘What is missing here is the idea that duty is something we do not only do to comply with outer standards but to bring about some sort of inner alignment, healing or balance.’ Somehow our sense of duty misses out on that ‘sort of inner alignment’. And yet, those who keep saying, ‘I should…’ obviously believe that if they do do what they ‘should’ do, it will bring them happiness!

And so, we come to where we need to be – with our wants - not so much our needs - and thereby with our true motivators. What is the key emotion that expresses our wants? That emotion is love; and what is its expression? Not I must or I should, but I want to … And here, of course, is perfect freedom; for if we do what we really want to do, then we are not aware of any constraint or constriction on us. It just feels great – we can work all day because we love working … when the wants, the motivators, are being fulfilled. Another way of putting this would be to say that enjoying our motivators is undoing the effects of low self-esteem, fatalism and failure.

Interestingly, what we love is also the great antidote to what we fear, psychologically as well as spiritually. Surely, those in states of Fear or Duty are much more likely to produce false Motivational Map results and as coaches we need – no! we want – to move them on to that higher plane of freedom and release where they can realise what they truly want. Let’s love on then, for love always produces freedom!

For more information about Motivational Maps and how to access them - please contact one of our Licensed Practitioners