Are You Motivated--Or Are You Driven?

Last Updated May 4, 2011 12:02 PM EDT

Necessity is the mother of invention, goes the saying. But not so. A considerable body of research over many years has shown that pressure is an almost sure-fire way to shut down creativity. As a more accurate saying puts it: "Keep your ear to the ground, your nose to the grindstone, and your shoulder to the wheel. Now try to work in that position."

There's a huge difference between being motivated to do something and being driven to do it. It's hardly news that people respond better to incentives than to threats. Aesop's fable about the sun and the wind is more than 2,600 years old--by now, every manager knows the moral. All but the most benighted HR departments train managers in the art of motivation. They may even (as happened in a company I worked for) provide packets of attaboys to hand out, like Starbucks or iTunes gift certificates. Dozens of companies have taken up Stanford Professor Bob Sutton's "No Asshole Rule" and made it official policy.

So why do many managers treat themselves worse than they would their staff? When I look at colleagues or clients or friends--or in the mirror--I see more driven people than motivated ones. Many of us have only ourselves to blame for the hunched-over posture. "You've got to understand, I'm under a lot of pressure," one told me recently; thinking about it later, I realized that her business is doing well and she has created her own anxiety.

Of course, that's a lot easier to observe in someone else than in yourself, which is one reason people see shrinks. But here are some signs:

Are you pursuing something, or are you being pursued? At the most basic level, people are motivated by rewards and driven by fears. A lot of research suggests that optimists are more successful than pessimists. Lawyers are the great exception, according to Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, partly because they're selected, trained, and paid to look for what might go wrong. Also, Seligman points out, much of the law is a zero-sum game; it's easier to seek rewards when they do not have to be carved from the flesh of a loser.

Who has defined success for you? Sure, you may have budgets and targets and stretch goals, but if those are your only milestones, you've forgone the chance to find intrinsic motivations--like, for example, recognizing your own growing expertise. (On Broadway, there's a famous story about the legendary 1950s director George Abbott, a man utterly contemptuous of actors who had been to school to find an emotional reason for everything they did. Once a young actor asked Abbot, "What's my motivation?" when given a stage direction. "Your salary," Abbot snapped.) Someone who is motivated feels satisfaction at the end of a project; someone who is driven feels relief. One has champagne; the other needs a drink.

Are you trying to stand out or to fit in? There's always an element of pride in motivation.. Motivated people like to show off their accomplishments, and revel in the uniqueness of what they have done. They may do this in an abashed, aw-shucks manner, but they do it. Someone driven, by contrast, is complying, even when he is a so-called high achiever; those young-banker-types who used to run around the Central Park reservoir in t-shirts saying "Warning: Contents Under Pressure" were showing off their conformity.

Are you getting somewhere? Motivation may be intrinsic, but it thrives on feedback loops. New research from Harvard Business School's Theresa Amabile documents the unexpected power of progress as a motivator: It's the number-one reason people report having had a good day at work, ranking ahead of recognition, incentives, clear goals, or support. You want to know that you're getting somewhere. We've all seen films where sailors grew mutinous when they despaired of seeing land and had to be driven sullenly back to their stations. We're no different: When we're progressing, we're motivated; when not, we start driving ourselves.

Most managers try to be conscientious about motivating their people rather than driving them. Why is it so hard to do unto ourselves what we would do to others?

Illustration courtesy flickr user Leeks