Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Organizations

Exclusive! In this first look at a new book, HBS professors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria explore how human nature shapes business organizations. Does your organization reflect the four basic human drives? Plus: Q&A.
by Paul Lawrence & Nitin Nohria

In Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices, the authors combine the latest thinking from the biological and social sciences to lay out a new theory on human nature. The idea: We are all influenced and guided by four drives: acquiring, bonding, learning, and defending. In this excerpt, Lawrence and Nohria examine how an organization built around the four-drive theory might look.

The return from your work must be the satisfaction which that work brings you and the world's need of work. With it, life is heaven, or as near heaven as you can get. Without this—with work which you despise, which bores you, and which the world does not need—this life is hell. —W.E.B. Du Bois

In the organizational context, the four-drive theory implies that every person, from the CEO to the most junior employee will bring a predictable set of mental equipment to work each and every day. This mental apparatus will be engaged in every item of behavior that takes place at work. Likewise, all the other people engaged with the focal organization—its customers, its shareholders and creditors, its suppliers, its neighbors and its regulators—will have this same mental equipment.

What would an organization look like that was explicitly designed to engage the drives, the skills, the smarts, and the emotions of such people in a collaborative effort to design, produce, and sell products and services of value to the wider world? After we have deduced what such an organization would be like, we will compare it to a well-known and admired model of industrial organization—General Motors. We will also compare the theoretical model to a much-admired high-technology firm, Hewlett-Packard. Finally we will propose a research project that would test the four-drive theory's relevance to organizations by predicting outcomes instead of explaining events with hindsight.

An Organization Designed For Four-drive People

What is the most basic thing employees at all levels must come to terms with at work? The nature of their individual jobs. How would individual jobs be designed to best engage the four-drive person? Once this question is asked, it is quite amazingly simple to answer. Clearly, every job must provide an opportunity to fulfill, to some reasonable degree, all four drives. In other words, every job needs to provide an opportunity for the incumbent to acquire, to learn, to bond, and to defend. A job that fulfills only one or two drives, no matter how lavishly, would not be a substitute for a job that provides a balanced opportunity to fulfill all four drives. This simple design rule is the fundamental and primary one that should guide the work of the organizational leader throughout the design process.

This design rule is easy to state, but it is difficult to follow for two basic reasons. First, some core production technologies are less amenable to applying the rule than others. Second, organizations have a tendency to veer to an extreme emphasis on the achievement of some one drive to the neglect of the others. When this happens, even the emphasized drive will in time become frustrated. To maintain a reasonable balance among the drives requires hands-on steering by the leadership of the organization. Like riding a unicycle, it takes constant adjustment to move forward, without falling right, left, front, or back.

Let us now assume that the organization leader has done the design work and that the organizational roles have been planned so that every job has four-drive potential. Further we will assume that the interconnections between roles are also planned so as to achieve the overall objectives of the firm in relation to customers, investors, and regulators. Now people are chosen to step into these roles and the organization is set in motion. What will happen in real time?

Once on the job, the bonding drive will lead every person to search for others with whom they can evolve mutual caring commitments. These others will, in all likelihood, be in their immediate work area. When these one-to-one bonded relationships form a cluster, the participants will begin to see themselves as a group, their bonded group that is distinct from other groups. If the individuals in this primary group have interlocking tasks, their bonds of trust will facilitate their joint task performance and they can be officially recognized as a work group or team. The more extended bonding drive of employees will also predispose them to bond with organizational groupings beyond their immediate work team. They will bond, if such opportunities have been wisely provided by the leaders, with their department, their plant, their division, and even with the entire firm. Other things being equal, these multiple bonds will lead the people involved into friendly support of one another. However, without other counterbalancing drives at work, this would in time lead to a tension-free, collusive set of relationships with everyone attending to everyone else's comfort instead of attending to their acquiring drive by focusing on job performance. One problematic form this excessive bonding can take is the "group think" process described by Irving Janis (Janis, 1982). But, of course, the bonding drive is not alone in the human psyche; the drive to acquire will especially unsettle any such cozy equilibrium.

The acquiring drive will lead to ongoing competition as everyone in the organization seeks to boost their relative share of the scarce resources. This competitive drive to excel others is the greatest source of the restless energy that people bring to the workplace. If this were the only drive in play, it would lead inevitably to an all-out struggle of each against all. Everyone would act as a free agent in a winner-take-all contest. Opportunism and selfish political behavior would be rampant. A great deal of frantic effort would be expended—but little of it would be the kind of coordinated effort that would result in completed tasks for the overall firm. In other words, all this energy probably would not be harnessed efficiently to the goals of the larger enterprise.

The acquiring drive will lead to ongoing competition as everyone in the organization seeks to boost their relative share of the scarce resources.
—Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria

It is clearly in the interest of the organizational leader to align the competitive energies of individuals with the integrated goals of the organization. To do this the leader would need, on an ongoing basis, to moderate the competitive energies of D1 with the mutual caring generated by D2. This need for balancing the acquisitive and bonding drives sets up the second guiding principle for the leader: such a balance needs to be struck in every key relationship in the firm—within each primary work group, between all primary groups that are interdependent, between any larger groups such as departments and divisions, and directly in the social contract between all employees and the overall firm. Think of it as seeking the tension of respectful competition in all relationships.

Keeping all these relationships in balance is much easier to say than to do. Relationships can all too readily slide into cutthroat competition or totally collusive bonding. Either extreme will harm the firm's performance. These swings can occur because each of the four drives was created by evolution to improve the odds of gene survival. When any one drive gains dominance for whatever reason in a given social setting, it soon becomes self-reinforcing. A spiraling arms race can be created with everyone seeking more and more of a good thing. There seems to never be enough of the good thing—until a crisis breaks up the cycle. Individuals can be expected to try to maintain a balance among their drives in their own personal lives, but they often need the help of well-managed social institutions to succeed.

Leaders have several structural devices they can use to promote this balance. For example, they can balance financial and symbolic rewards for both individual achievement and teamwork. They can arrange the physical layout to place interdependent groups in adjacent space to encourage trustful bonding. Individuals can be assigned the full-time job of maintaining balanced relationships within and between groups. Of course, these same structural devices can be misused and thereby contribute to the extremes. For example, offering large financial incentives to the winners of intergroup contests would predictably pull these relationships into cutthroat competition.

In addition, in an effort to keep the competition from becoming cutthroat or the bonding from becoming collusive, the designer can foster the identification of every employee with the firm as a whole and its overall goals. Remember that four-drive theory argues that the innate pressure to fulfill all four drives together has served to evolve a social contracting skill as a means to this end. People are predisposed to bond with their firm both in a mutual caring way and also to help their firm excel. The designer can encourage this by fostering firm-wide symbols, rituals, and norms. However, any such social contract must be a mutual commitment to be effective. The leadership group must make their own strong and visible commitment to the welfare of the overall firm and to its members if less powerful participants are to follow.

So far we have focused on the implications of the drives to bond and to acquire and the interplay between them. The drives to learn and to defend must receive equivalent consideration. For individual jobs to offer opportunities for learning they would have to entail enough variety of content to generate novel or problematic situations that trigger the itch of curiosity. It is this itch in the incumbent's mind that activates the drive to resolve the gap between the known and the new perception. Of course, the variety can be too great and the gaps so large that confusion results. But if the variety is in a zone of moderate stimulation, creative new solutions to problems will be fostered that can be gratifying to the individual as well as useful for the organization. Learning of this same kind also moves along well in a group or intergroup context when the participants are diverse enough to trigger the curiosity itch, but not so different as to be threatening. What constitutes "too much" diversity is moderated by the quality of the social skills participants are able to exercise toward keeping the learning dialogue open and flowing.

Book Cover: Driven  

In relation to the drive to defend, work groups must be provided with the means to fend off external attacks. They must be able to press their legitimate claims for resources and support from the overall firm. They must be able to defend their identity and reputation from unjust attacks. And the firm as a whole needs a similar defensive capacity for its dealings with hostile competitive firms, community groups, or governmental agencies.

The defending and learning drives can also veer to dysfunctional extremes. Individuals can become defensive to the point of paranoia, and so can organizations—building fortresses so strong they have trouble learning about and relating to customers and investors. Likewise, individuals can become so obsessed with learning that they forget to eat or sleep or take vacations—and this can happen to whole organizations. The organizational leader needs to balance D3 and D4. The goal is to encourage prudent risk taking, not reckless exploration, and to encourage boundaries between groups that are permeable rather than impregnable. Certainly work shared between individuals or between groups can best be conducted without a heavily defensive mood—inhibiting the desirable spirit of mutual learning and inquiry between the parties. One of the critical roles of a leader of any given group is to facilitate open-minded relations with other parts of the organization while defending the group from outside challenges as needed. Part of the challenge of organization design is to lay out the architecture of the organization so that barriers between groups—physical distance, organizational lines, and skill differences—do not pile up at any single interface to handicap the needed relationship.

Beyond the question of drives, every job in our theoretical four-drive organization would offer an opportunity for the incumbent to employ some personal skills, skills for which they not only have an innate head start but also a personal history of further developing and refining. Since individuals will differ in regard to the skill sets they have developed, this step will necessitate a one-to-one matching of skills and job requirements. As people with the needed skills and interests are selected for employment and as they further evolve their skills on the job, differences in this regard will appear between people and groups that complicate the process of sustaining healthy working relationships.

Any organization has design issues posed by the innate nature of its employees and also by the same innate nature of its customers, suppliers, investors, and regulators. Much the same issues arise here as with employees. For example, most firms depend on the continuing high regard of their customers. Repeat sales are essential. To achieve this the product or service needs to engage customers in terms of all four drives. Hence firms need to cultivate identifying brands for their products that represent a kind of social contract, a promise of a certain mix of quality (D1), service (D2), novelty (D3), and reliability (D4) that adds up to a value that justifies the price.

Of course, shareholders have always been seen as caring only about the acquiring opportunities provided by share ownership. But this ignores their defending drive to avoid significant losses of their capital, and often their satisfaction from simply being associated with a distinguished and interesting firm.

The relation between firms and their suppliers, to be sound over the long haul, needs to allow both buyers and sellers a chance to fulfill all four drives. Addressing their acquiring drives is necessary but not sufficient to create an ongoing healthy relationship. The variety of issues and problems generated by the interaction of the parties can stimulate the joint problem solving of both to their mutual benefit. They can come to the defense of one another by providing help in times of crisis. They can take significant satisfaction in developing bonds of partnership and friendship and feel free of concerns about being double-crossed. Relations of this rich four-drive type can be planned for and evolved between firms in the supply chain to their mutual advantage.

Finally, while it might be more difficult to achieve, a very similar relationship can evolve between direct competitors and between firms and their government regulators. It may come as a surprise to some business leaders, but regulators can actually help competing firms avoid the perils of cutthroat competition on one hand and price-fixing collusion on the other. The government can thus help them achieve the balance of healthy competition that is vital to sustained prosperity.

Consider the commercial fishing industry. All fishermen can be expected to try to fill up their own vessels with fish on each voyage—to do less would not be in their competitive interest. Yet if every fisherman acts this way, all will lose out as the overall stock becomes depleted. Economists call this dynamic dilemma the "Tragedy of the Commons." Nothing short of the government with its power of regulating an industry for the common good can stop such an outbreak of cutthroat competition. The government can take the lead in negotiating a sensible social contract, binding on all participants in the industry, that sets helpful constraints on competition. This type of problem arises again and again in economic activity. Think of the problem of pollution control, of lumbering, of soil conservation—the list goes on and on.

To the extent that a living organization managed to follow this blueprint, we predict that it would achieve long-term success in terms of all the major outcomes by which organizations are judged. Since all four human drives are being fulfilled by this design one might think that it would not be all that difficult to achieve. Certainly once such a blueprint is understood as a desirable target, it should be easier to achieve. However, it turns out to be a difficult target to hit. Organizations as well as individuals easily drift into an overemphasis on one drive. This leads in time to the frustration of all drives. In addition, some core technologies make it very awkward to follow this blueprint.

About the Author

William Joyce is a professor of strategy and organizational theory at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business.

Bruce Roberson is executive vice president of marketing and sales at Safety-Kleen.