Management Articles


The Four Drive Theory in the Workplace

By: Stan Emelander

Stan Emelander, M.B.A, M.S., is a senior analyst for Camber Corporation and is currently pursuing doctoral studies at Capella University.

You are viewing the U.S. bookstore. Click here to view the Canadian store.
The Four Drive theory, explained in the 2002 book Driven by Drs. Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria of the Harvard Business School, describes human motivation in terms of a set of dynamic, interacting needs that are a fundamental part of humankind’s makeup. The needs arise from our evolutionary past, and are built into to humans as a part of the mental equipment that provided advantages to adaptation and survival in past epochs.

The drives themselves are complete and elemental, offering a comprehensive explanation for human motivation that cannot be broken down into further constituent elements. Each of the four drives (acquire, bond, comprehend, and defend) includes features and components that influence interactions in the workplace.

The drive to acquire includes both material goods and status and can lead to both excellent performance and detrimental competition. The drive to acquire is both basic, relating to gathering the necessities for survival, and more complex, concerning the acquisition of status, accomplishments, and power. Those social “goods” are proxies for the material necessities that improve the survival odds for one’s self and decedents. Providing clear links between job performance and fulfillment of this drive is recommended as a core component of building a satisfying job. The drive to acquire can be modified by the drive to bond to help dampen unhealthy competition in an organization.

The drive to bond manifests itself in our urge to find others to seek others and to engage them others in relationships of mutual caring. Research has shown that most likely we tend to bond with others of similar demographics and outlook. If workers are successful in establishing individual relationships, the connections can grow to include groups. Firm’s can take advantage of this drive by promoting attachments to work groups, divisions, and the entire organization. The drive to bond can lead to interactions of healthy of support among workers. While the drive to bond is directed towards others, the drive to learn relates mostly to work activities.

The drive to learn is satisfied by work environments that stimulate curiosity and allow for exploration and developing understanding. It also relates to understanding one’s role in the firm, and the significance of that role. A good example of the strength of this drive is the degree of job satisfaction that experienced knowledge workers get from challenges in the workplace. The drive to learn can function well in a group context, interacting with the drive to bond. The previous drives are always desirable in the workplace, contrasting with the drive to defend.

While acquisition, bonding, and learning are active drives that human seek to fulfill, the drive to defend is latent. The defend drive must be stimulated by a threat to become active. Threats to the individual, their group, and the firm as a whole can trigger the drive to defend. The firm, then, can work adjust to this drive by eliminating sources of unintentional or misguided threats. It can also provide workers the means to respond to legitimate threats in the firm’s competitive or regulatory environment.

While the Four Drive theory describes the motivations to acquire, bond, learn and defend as fundamental to human psychology, the relative strength of each drive varies in individuals. Also, the influence of individual drives can vary over time in a single individual. It is detrimental when one drive dominates, leading to unbalanced personal and organization outcomes. For instance, the drive acquire can lead to destructive competition, and over-stimulation of drive to defend to paranoia. An important theme of the Four Drive theory is balance between and among drives so they can compliment and regulate each other. Structuring jobs to support this interaction is an important consideration in the workplace.

It is feasible to measure employee perceptions about the workplace and relate those to Four Drive motives. A sample Four Drive survey relating the four core drives to job satisfaction is given below. The survey questions themselves provide information on areas that managers can consider in light of the Four Drive Theory.

Drive to Acquire and Achieve

  • Are workplace monetary rewards tied to performance in your organization?
  • Is your pay competitive?
  • Are expectations by which your performance is evaluated are clearly expressed?
  • Is need for high performance is clearly expressed in your firm.
  • Are you appropriately recognized for your performance?
  • How satisfied are you with your pay from work?
  • Are you able to distinguish yourself through your job?

Drive to Bond

  • Does your firm encourage you to count on support from others?
  • Are collaboration and teamwork valued and recognized by your organization?
  • Does your firm’s culture encourage sharing of best practices?
  • Is your firm is supportive of friendship among workers?
  • Do you feel strongly that you are a part of the team?
  • Are your managers are people-oriented?
  • Does your management show that it cares about you on a personal level?

Drive to Learn and Comprehend

  • Does your job included work that interest you?
  • Do you have the opportunity to learn new things at work?
  • Does your job accomplish something meaningful in your organization?
  • Are your assignments are challenging?
  • Does your work include a variety of tasks?
  • Does your firm actively support personal growth and learning?
  • Are you are gaining skills and/or knowledge as a part of your work?

Drive to Defend

  • Is your firm’s performance rating system open and transparent?
  • Is your work environment welcoming and non-intimidating?
  • Do you feel your firm’s performance rating system is fair?
  • Do your managers treat people fairly?
  • Do you trust the firm’s performance rating system?
  • Does your firm support open communications - are you able to speak up?


You are viewing the U.S. bookstore. Click here to view the Canadian store.
Lawerence, P. & Norhira, N. (2001). Driven: How Human Nature Shapes our Choices. San Fransico, CA: Jossey-Bass.


Article Source: - The Four Drive Theory in the Workplace

© Copyright 2009, Stan Emelander

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. ManagerWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. ManagerWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


Place "+" (without the quotes) in front of words that must appear; "-" to exclude articles with certain words; and put double quotes around phrases. For example, fantastic search will find all case studies with either the word "fantastic" or "search" (or both). On the other hand, +fantastic +search will find only case studies with the words "fantastic" and "search". "fantastic search" will find only case studies that with the phrase "fantastic search". Note: Searches will not find words, such as 'management', that appear in more than half of the articles or words less than five letters long.


Would you like us to consider your own articles for publication? Please review our submission and editorial guidelines by clicking here.