Keeping Your Team Motivated

Keeping your team motivated during the pandemic is a widely recognised challenge. A recent survey of 600 CEOs by HBS asked what was keeping them up at night. The answers varied slightly but the common theme was motivation.

Keeping Your Team Motivated
Keeping Your Team Motivated

“Keeping morale and motivation up amongst employees while they are dealing with the stress of COVID-19 as well as parenting/schooling children while working from home. How can we be supportive while maximizing productivity? How do we help employees with work/life balance?”

“Keeping spirits high in a sales environment. At the moment our sales force has to work twice as hard for a quarter of the results. We have reduced the expectation of results but they still feel like they are losing every day. I believe this will be a marathon, not a sprint, and I will need help for the next many months to keep theirs and others’ spirits high so we can keep them for when we recover.”

The analysis reported that teams are looking for motivation and to find meaning at work during this crisis.

Research from Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria suggests that people are guided by four basic emotional needs that are based in our evolutionary heritage and drive human motivation.

  • Acquire – To obtain scarce goods, including intangibles such as social status.
  • Bond – Form connections with individuals and groups.
  • Comprehend – Satisfy our curiosity and master the world around us.
  • Defend – Protect against external threats and promote justice.

Individual motivation is rooted in how much a role is satisfying each of these four basic emotional needs. The key to achieving major improvement or sustained employee motivation is how each of the four are improved together.

This is in part due to the extent that two of the drives are required to balance each other to achieve optimum outcomes. Acquire is a competitive driver and Bond is a cooperative driver and as the authors point out “Relationships can all too readily slide into cutthroat competition or totally collusive bonding. Either extreme will harm the firm’s performance.

The other two drives are also somewhat opposing, Comprehend and learning requires openness and a willingness to fail. The drive to Defend territory or status can cause people to resist change and even information.

The impact of the Pandemic on the four drives

The fundamentals of human psychology has not changed but the pandemic has intensified how they impact.

  • Cost cutting is reducing some of the more common opportunities to motivate through salary raises and team bonding celebrations.
  • Uncertainty caused by the pandemic is increasing peoples defensiveness.
  • Working remotely loses some of the implicit communication networks, leaders have in turn sought to over communicate which tends to reinforce formal boundaries and expectations.
Four Drive Ecosystem
Source: Harvard Business School


  • Pay as well as competitors – If you are seeking to grow or retain talent this remains a priority.
  • Differentiate good performance – from average or poor performance – Ensure this is clearly based on metrics and priorities tied to the company’s mission.
  • Tie rewards clearly to performance – Make sure that the organisational priorities are clear and consistent. There is no point in espousing a value and not providing any priority ensuring commitment to its success.


  • Foster friendship, collaboration and mutual reliance among coworkers – motivate through making the collegial bonds stronger.
  • Value collaboration and teamwork – encourage employees to feel part of a team and be better together.
  • Encourage best practice for sharing – recognise those who are helping their peers, make that sure that those who keep the team together and stronger are also recognised and praised.


  • Provide development opportunities – a key aspect of job satisfaction comes from career growth.
  • Empower individuals to lead and grow – motivation comes from learning, problem solving and creativity and by giving individuals the chance to demonstrate these.


  • Psychological safety – The drive to defend is a desire to have deserved a job, gotten it fairly and to be confident that the role would not be capriciously taken away.
  • Fairness – encourage team members to engage and listen to what they have to say.
  • Normalise asking for help – offer to provide help before its asked for or even needed.

When these actions come through one person—the manager or team leader—some integration automatically takes place. A course correction serves to hone the competitive edge (acquire), while improving understanding (comprehend), and, if it is delivered in a helpful and respectful way, strengthens the relationship between manager and employee (bond).

Synopsis of an article from Harvard Business School - Working Knowledge
Keep Your Weary Workers Engaged and Motivated | Humans are motivated by four drives: acquire, bond, comprehend, and defend. Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams discuss how managers can use all four to keep employees engaged.
By Boris Groysberg and Robin Abrahams
Published: 8th October 2020

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