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The 4 Emotional Drives of Learning

By Holly Parks

The 4 Emotional Drives of Learning

With the exception of the unavoidable accidents, people do things for their own purposes. So one reason why training fails could be that most people do not connect the training that they must attend to anything that is important to them. Psychologists have shown that significant learning takes place when it is directly related to the meaningful purpose and the motives of the individual. The rewards for learning must be immediate, personal and certain. If the learner perceives the learning to be important and relevant to his/her own purposes, and believes that using the new skills will bring immediate results, guaranteed, then he/she will engage in it and use it.

If learners are involved in deciding what is important and what they learn, their commitment is assured. The motivation to learn is driven mostly from internal desires. Lee Resource Inc.

“People are guided by four basic emotional needs or drives that are the product of our common evolutionary heritage.”- Paul R. Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices

1. Acquire - obtain scarce goods, that bolster our sense of well-being, including intangibles such as:

  • Status
  • Being promoted
  • Getting a corner office
  • Place on the corporate board

This drive tends to be relative (where we compare ourselves to others) and insatiable (where we always want more). If a person feels that the training they receive will help them ‘acquire’ that which is important to them, they will wholeheartedly embrace it. One of the most important questions to answer for this motivation is “Why should I?” And the answer should clearly address a connection between improving performance and gaining higher status, more money, higher praise, and opportunities for choice assignments and/or a promotion. This can not be hyperbole. It must ring true.

2. Bond - form connections with individuals and groups

Bond is associated with strong positive emotions like love and caring. When these are not met, individuals feel loneliness and lack of purpose, identity and restlessness. When this need is met people feel proud of belonging to their organization.

“People learn in order to affiliate, to belong. The new way of behaving that they learn in a training session becomes a way to belong.” - Larry Wilson, Founder of Wilson Learning Worldwide and Pecos River Learning Center

This is especially true when the new learning is reinforced and rewarded in the work environment.

We have seen this happen before when people attend one of our public seminars. They will bond with the other member of their class, sometimes to the extent of conducting future reunions. It becomes even more powerful with a greater return for an organization when the members of the class are from one organization. This also explains why some e-learning initiatives fail, they are not conducive to bonding.

Satisfaction of this need has the greatest effect on employee commitment. The “we’re in this together” attitude promotes loyalty and dedication.

3. Comprehend - satisfy our curiosity and master the world around us to make a meaningful contribution

Adult learners are motivated to learn when they perceive that the learning will help perform tasks or deal with problems they confront in their daily lives. A small percentage of people are predisposed to learning or self-development. Most want to learn by “just doing it” because they are caught up in the crisis of work. When you show them practical and direct links between training and their ability to make meaningful contributions, they will embrace it even more.

“The pleasures that arise from thinking and learning will make us think and learn all the more.” - Aristotle

The operative word here is ‘pleasures,’ indicating that the learner finds great satisfaction and fulfillment in learning.

Satisfaction of the need to Comprehend is most closely linked to employee engagement. When their learning is connected to a meaningful purpose and their ability to engage in work that is challenging and enables growth, these employees will be very involved.

4. Defend- protect against external threats and promote justice.

To satisfy this motivation, people aspire to create institutions that promote justice, that have clear goals and intentions, and allow people to express their ideas and opinions.

While this motive may be more important in other settings, such as protecting the homefront, it can be found in organizations as well. For example, while Caterpillar had a banner on the wall that read ‘Thinks Safety”, their competitor, Komatsu’s banner read “Kill the Cat.” Management used this motivator to ‘defend’ their market share (and therefore their jobs) as a way to increase quality and efficiencies, and it worked. If going to a training class to learn new skills that would allow them to be more efficient and produce higher quality, then they were all for it. Of course, it was the imperative that the connection was made between the training and ‘defending’ the company.

When these four motivators/needs are met, people have feelings of security and confidence, which translates to engaged and committed workers. When they are not met, people feel fear and resentment. Depending on the situation, individuals will have different priorities at different times. The opportunity here is for managers to have conversations with their employees to determine their primary motivation and then connect the learning to opportunity to that motivation. Doing this helps the manager position the training as important to the learner’s growth and ability to acquire, bond, comprehend or defend. It is important to note that these priorities can change, so it is important to note that these priorities can change, so ongoing communications are essential to long term commitments to learning.

In order to gain commitments from individuals to take charge of their own learning, it is imperative that you understand their needs, desires, motivations and personal barriers to learning, and find ways, organizationally to respond to those.

Can you identify which emotional drive motivates your employees or organization?

Published: April 11, 2014


Holly Parks

Chief Operating Officer

Holly bought out Bob’s partner in 1988 to become an owner in Strategic Enhancement Group. She has over 35 years of experience in business. Prior to joining SEG, Holly ran the operations for companies as diverse as paper converting to packaging to computer value added reseller. Her role with Strategic Enhancement Group is to set and execute the strategic direction for the company. Holly majored in political science with minors in French and Spanish at Western Illinois University. Along with Bob, Holly has been recognized with the highest awards given by Wilson Learning.

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