Guest Writer - Paul Herr
Principal Consultant at Paul Herr Consulting

The Harvard Four-Drive Model

This is the third blog article in my series on employee engagement. In blog 1 we concluded that employee engagement is here to stay because companies that score high on engagement surveys also perform better. In blog 2 I defined employee engagement as “an emotional connection between employees and their employers.” I also introduced the Harvard 4-drive model to explain what the “emotional connection” consists of. Now let’s explore the Harvard model more closely because it is extremely important to the success of your organization.

Why the Employee Engagement “Needle” Has Been Stuck at 30% for the past 20 Years.

The Employee Engagement “needle” has been stuck for the past two decades at around “30% engaged.” This means that only 30% of employees, on average, have their heads is the game. If this were a college exam, a 30% would earn the business community a solid “F” in employee motivation. What’s up with this profound failure to engage and motivate the workforce?

Here are my thoughts. The Conference Board’s research, mentioned in Blog 2, concluded that engaged employees have an emotional connection to their employers. The low engagement scores therefore imply that the business community does not understand this connection. This is partly because the word “emotion” has a tainted brand image inside most organizations.  It brings to mind negative feelings like anger, fear, rage, and jealousy that we DON’T WANT in the workplace. Business leaders are therefore taught to be cool, analytical and to suppress their emotions—like the mythical Mr. Spock.  This is the fundamental error, in my opinion, that is driving the epidemic of disengaged employees.

Why the Word “Emotion” Has a Bad “Brand Image”

We cannot move the engagement needle until we first rehabilitate the brand image of the word, “emotion.” I will use the Harvard 4-drive model to explain the powerful role that feelings and emotions play in the workplace. They reside at the core of human survival and the vital core of the capitalist system.  Our emotional guidance system tells us what we need to survive, and the rational mind attempts to satisfy these core needs. There is nothing soft or irrational about this! If we lacked this elegant survival system, humans would go extinct!! Let’s have a little respect for the motivational heritage that made our lives possible.

The Good, Desirable Emotions That Everyone Ignores

The business community has effectively thrown the baby out with the bathwater by demonizing emotions in the workplace. Using an iceberg analogy, explosive emotions are just the visible tip of the proverbial iceberg. They are part of the Harvard model’s “drive to defend.”  

The more-important part of the motivational iceberg lies uncharted below the waterline. This is where the other three Harvard drives reside. These drives are the source of desirable, productive emotions that induce employees to innovate, achieve mastery, work hard, and collaborate as a team. If we activate all three of these drives, employee engagement, the employee experience, and profits will soar because employees will feel much more rewarded and connected.

Why Are There Just 4Drives in the Harvard Model?

You might be wondering, “Why there are just four drives in the Harvard model?  Why not eight or ten drives?” The answer is simple—there are four drives because there are four behaviors that are SO WILDLY IMPORTANT to human survival that nature had no choice but to incentivize them with motivating feelings of pleasure and pain. Maybe we should use the term “regulatory feelings” instead of “emotions”for these natural incentives. This term is scientifically accurate and avoids the negative baggage associated with the word“emotions.”

The best way to understand the regulatory feelings associated with the Harvard model is to start with something familiar—like the drives to eat, drink, breathe, and sleep. Let’s begin with the “drive to breathe.” Try holding your breath for a minute. The “drive to breathe” starts out with a mild warning, analogous to a tap on the shoulder. Then it gets more insistent, “Hey, buddy, it’s time to breathe.” If we persist in our life-threatening behavior, the pain quickly escalates into the “unbearable zone” and we capitulate and start breathing again. When we start breathing, it feels good, which is the drive rewarding us for a sensible choice.  

Hunger works the same way. If we eat too much, it hurts and we feel bloated, which is the signal designed to inhibit excessive eating.  If we eat too little, it hurts and we feel hungry. This regulatory feeling says, “Hey, it’s time to refuel.”  When we have the optimal amount of nutrition, we feel good—satiated. This means that we ARE SUPPOSED TO FEEL GOOD WHEN WE ARE BEHAVING OPTIMALLY.

These two, simple examples point to a general design theme: “For every behavior that is absolutely vital for human survival there WILL BE A SYSTEM IN THE BRAIN, based on PLEASURE AND PAIN, to regulate it. The Harvard team simply extended this rule (Rule 1) to the realm of creative, productive and cooperative behaviors in the workplace that are equally vital for survival.  

The Harvard Drives

I will introduce the Harvard drives in a specific order so they flow logically from one to the next.

  1. Innovation Drive: Human beings absolutely, positively need to innovate and develop survival technologies to survive. Unlike many other animals, we do not instinctively know how to survive. Rather, we need to learn the survival technology passed down by our ancestors. This survival database is a familiar name--“culture.”

    ‍Technology was the equalizer that protected us from becoming snack food on the Serengeti Plain.  Since technological innovation is vital for our survival, nature incentivized it with regulatory feelings of pleasure and pain (see RULE 1).

    One form of innovation-associated pleasure is the Eureka moment—the brief pop of pleasure we experience when we get an idea. Another innovation-related pleasure is curiosity, the pleasure of novelty. This pleasure motivates human beings to explore the environment and identify resources. In the modern context, curiosity motivates people to watch nature shows on TV, read NationalGeographic magazine, buy telescopes, collect fossils, visit zoos, go on exotic vacations, and study science.

    The innovation drive is my personal favorite. Innovation-related pleasures are a BIG part of my non-monetary intrinsic paycheck. If I’m not allowed to explore, experiment, innovate, and solve problems at work, “I’M OUTTA HERE!” How about you—do you have an insatiable desire to think, solve problems, and get ideas?
  2. Drive to Acquire: Here is a biggie—the “drive to acquire.” This is a hugely-important drive that makes human culture possible. It can therefore be thought of as a “culture drive.” It works like this. We all belong to a tribe, of sorts, consisting of the 200, or so, people we associate with most often.  This “tribe” subconsciously programs which survival assets are desirable and worth acquiring, and which assets are undesirable and not worth the trouble.  ANYTHING can be deemed a desirable asset if the tribe says so: from skill in one’s profession, to traditional assets like cars, homes, jewelry, artwork and money. Since the tribe defines which assets are important and desirable, let’s call them “social assets.”

    The drive to defend requires a lot of computing power—a ledger, of sorts, that automatically tracks our investments in family, career, and traditional assets like property and financial investments. As we acquire social assets our self-worth ratchets upward and we walk tall and feel proud. I experienced a big self-esteem boost when I earned my black belt in karate at age 54. I experienced another boost the same year when my book, PrimalManagement was published by the American Management Association. I have walked a bit taller ever since.

    If we lack the requisite social assets, ourself-esteem ratchets downward and we experience low self worth and feel incompetent. If we have no assets in our ledger whatsoever, self esteem ratchets down to the floor and we experience an excruciating form of pain called “depression.” Depression is nature’s tough-love message that says, “Ignoring the tribe’s survival priorities is not an option for a technological creature like a human being.”

    If we help our employees develop important skills and acquire social assets, we provide a permanent boost to their self esteem that turns them into proud, confident and competent employees. I therefore call self-esteem, “the gift that keeps on giving,” because it provides employees with an ongoing annuity of good feelings, not just a one-time payment.
  3. The Drive to Achieve: The “drive to achieve”was not part of the original Harvard model, but Paul Lawrence added it in an unpublished manuscript written shortly before his death in 2011. With this addition, the Harvard 4-drive model became a 5-drive model.

    The drive to achieve is both important and easy to understand. It produces the brief, dopamine-fueled euphoria we experience when we hit an ace in tennis, sink a three-pointer in basketball, drive a golf ball down the middle of the fairway, or get a pat on the back from the boss. This “pleasure of a win” is brief because nature’s message is, “Good job, now proceed directly to the next achievement.”

    There is also a durable component to achievement because it also creates a social asset that slightly boosts our self esteem(see the drive to acquire).

    Professionals in the reward and recognition industry are “drive-to-achieve” experts because employee recognition only works if it triggers this drive. If we could somehow turn off the “drive to achieve,” productive human behavior would come to a screeching halt, because it wouldn’t feel rewarding anymore.  Nobody would attend sporting events either, because winning or losing would feel the same—NOTHING.
  4. The Drive to Bond: Human beings not only require a shared technology to survive, we also need to apply that technology as a coordinated team. This is how we subdued Wooly Mammoths during the last ice age and now we survive in today’s chaotic, business ecosystem.

    The cooperation drive is activated whenever we interact with the people who are most important to us. It produces the warm, friendly feelings that we experience when we hug our kids, take our special someone out to dinner, pet our dog, or meet with colleagues after work for drinks and laughs. This regulatory feeling is produced by the neuro-peptide, oxytocin--the relationship hormone. If human beings did not experience this important regulatory feeling, we wouldn’t care about one another and there would be no such thing as “teamwork.”
  5. The Drive to Defend: The drive to defend is easy to understand. It is the source of the explosive emotions that we don’t want in the workplace. This is the Harvard drive that we DON’T want to activate. According to the Harvard model, it is easy to keep these disruptive emotions in check if we create supportive workplace environments that don’t threaten people’s investments.

    The drive to defend depends on the ledger wired inside the “drive to acquire” that automatically tracks our investments in family, career, and traditional assets like property and financial investments. When ANY OF THESE ASSETS are endangered, the brain’s threat-detection system jumps into action and defensive feelings are automatically triggered. All companies need to do, therefore, to stamp out explosive emotions, is to respect employees as allies and help them protect their assets. If companies act like allies, they will earn allies in return, because human beings are designed to reciprocate. It’s as simple as that.


Are you convinced that we are built to be productive and to enjoy our work?  Do you accept the central role of “regulatory feelings” in driving business success and human survival? Dan Goleman, the author of the 1995 blockbuster, EmotionalIntelligence, recognized the importance of regulatory feelings when he wrote,“ The fundamental task of leaders is to prime good feelings in those they lead.” The “good feelings” that Goleman mentioned are precisely the regulatory feelings emanating from the Harvard drives. Good feelings, as Goleman suggested, go hand-in-hand with high performance because they inform us when we are operating at our best.

The rewarding and painful feelings emanating from the five drives (four original drives plus the achievement drive add-on) are the “NUCLEAR FUEL” of human motivation. They are WHAT MOTIVATION IS MADE OF. When the drives are satisfied, we are operating at our rated capacity and therefore feel good. When the drives are frustrated or starved, we malfunction, and feel bad.

If we get it right, and activate the four productive drives (five drives minus the drive to defend), our employees arrive at work with smiles on their faces. They work harder and smarter because they actually care. Customers are happier because they get faster, better service from people with a good attitude. Employees spread the word through their social networks that your company is an awesome place to work, which boosts your employer brand and helps you attract and retain top talent. Paying attention to the core needs/drives of your people starts a virtuous cycle whereby everybody wins! Who wouldn’t want this?

In blog 4 I will describe a strategy for combining the best of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards to create a powerful hybrid that combines the best of both.

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