Getting employees to do their best work — especially under the trying circumstances we are living through right now in our industry — has always been a challenge for managers.  

Determining what motivates people has been a popular topic for decades. We are familiar with motivational theories from influential thinkers on human behavior, such as Aristotle, Sigmund Freud, and Abraham Maslow, and we ourselves may have our own theories as to why people do the things they do. What is motivating people to stay working in your operation right now instead of leaving and going to look for work somewhere else?

Maslow and Freud didn’t have the advantage of the knowledge we are acquiring today from modern brain-science.  Fortunately, new cross-disciplinary research in fields like neuroscience, biology, and evolutionary psychology are allowing us to peek under the scalp, so to speak, to learn more about the human brain. This new research suggests that we are all guided by four basic emotional needs or drives that are the product of our common evolutionary heritage.

What actions, precisely, can managers take to satisfy these four drives and, thereby, increase their employees’ overall motivation?

Part of the motivational research included two studies — one that surveyed 385 employees from two global businesses and one that surveyed employees from more than half of the Fortune 500 companies. They measured four commonly measured workplace indicators of motivation: engagement, satisfaction, commitment, and intention to quit. Engagement represents the energy, effort, and initiative employees bring to their jobs. Satisfaction reflects the extent to which they feel that the company meets their expectations.  Commitment captures the extent to which employees engage in corporate citizenship. Intention to quit is reflected in employee turnover.

Both studies showed that an organization’s ability to meet the four fundamental drives explains about 60 percent of an employee’s motivation. They also found that certain drives influence some motivational factors more than others.

In the research, fulfilling the drive to bond has the greatest effect on employee commitment. But a dairy can best improve overall motivational scores by satisfying all four drives in concert. The whole is more than the sum of its parts; a poor showing on one drive substantially diminishes the impact of high scores on the other three.

By over-emphasizing individual performance, a dairy owner may squelch the spirit of camaraderie among employees (their drive to bond). He may also create a hostile environment, because it may appear he is favoring some employees over others. Employees may no longer feel they are being treated justly.

A dairy’s managers must attend to the four fundamental emotional drives. They may be restricted by the rules and norms of the dairy, but employees are clever enough to know that their immediate superiors have some wiggle room. In fact, the research mentioned here shows that individual managers influence overall motivation as much as any organizational (dairy) policy does.

We need to start looking at this on our dairies. How engaged are your people? How satisfied are they with their work? How committed are they to the dairy? And, do they have any intention to quit? The answers to these questions are vital to the long-term viability of your business.

Jorge Estrada is an organizational development consultant and leadership coach with Leadership Coaching International, Inc. He can be reached at (360) 481-0133 or