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The Reasons People Work & Previously Unseen Challenges

According to the American Psychological Association, “Motivation is important in almost every aspect of human behaviour. When you make a decision, your choice is certainly influenced by your motivational state.”

Whether comparing working in an office versus out of an office (home or otherwise), there are six reasons that people work (or six motives) that were identified by Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi’s research: three are referred to as indirect, and three are referred to as direct.

Indirect Motives

  • Emotional pressure: You work because an external force motivates/threatens your identity. Self-confidence, peer pressure and shame are all forms of emotional pressure.
  • Economic pressure: This is an external force that makes you work to gain a reward or avoid a punishment.
  • Inertia: You can’t explain why you work, but you do it nonetheless because you did it yesterday and the day before that, and so on.

Direct Motives

  • Play: You are motivated by the work itself. Play is our learning instinct, and it’s tied to curiosity, experimentation and exploring challenging problems.
  • Purpose: The direct outcome of the work fits your identity. You work because you value the work’s impact.
  • Potential: The outcome of the work benefits your identity. The work enhances your potential.

Research shows that the direct motives tend to increase performance, while the indirect motives can hurt performance. For example, if emotional pressure, economic pressure and inertia increase, there is potential to be distracted or care less about the quality of work.

The previously unseen challenge (not covered in McGregor and Doshi’s research) is the impact from the COVID-19 outbreak on the indirect motives, and furthermore, what that means for dispersed teams that are struggling with direct, positive motives because of the nature of their set up.

Following the initial outbreak and subsequent health pandemic, both sets of motives were impacted. As leaders in the business community, we need to ask ourselves, “What are the practical ways to engage a dispersed team?” (Click the link to read the answer to the question.)


Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi, How to Keep Your Team Motivated, Remotely. Harvard Business Review. April 09, 2020.

Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi, How Company Culture Shapes Employee Motivation. Harvard Business Review. November 25, 2015.

Lindsay McGregor and Neel Doshi, Primed to Perform. HarperCollins Publishers. October 2015.

Kou Murayama, PhD, The Science of Motivation. Psychological Science Agenda. June 2018.

Temre Green, PhD

Temre Green, PhD

Head of Consulting Services, Australia & New Zealand. Temre has designed, planned and delivered business strategy and transformation programs that were driven by a range of factors, such as innovation, growth, compliance, regulations, restructures and economic downturns. As an Industrial-Organisational Psychologist, Temre has spent her career dedicated to organisational behaviour and the work environment. She is currently focused on the future of work and multiple areas of organisational development that support organisational growth and health.

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