46. Ambition Radar Screen

2 April 2023
How can I understand what motivates people’s behavior?

Key Definitions

Motivations are the reasons why people intentionally do something – they are the goals driving people’s behaviors. Of course, many other psychological forces also influence how people think and behave, such as emotions, routines, beliefs, and personality. But humans are willful beings and much of their behavior is motivated by striving towards certain goals.

When people’s motivations are consistent over time, they have an ambition – they are, consciously or unconsciously, aiming to realize some fundamental objective. An ambition is the overarching theme – the leitmotiv – driving much of their actions.

Conceptual Model

The Ambition Radar Screen builds on the work of McClelland (1961) to outline the four main motivational factors driving people’s behavior (tagging on virtue to McClelland’s achievement, affiliation, and power). The model adds an extra layer by indicating that people might desire each factor in its own right but might also be motivated by the status attached to each – the social standing flowing from the factor might be a goal in itself. The radar screen metaphor emphasizes that the model is not intended for mapping and understanding people’s psychology in detail, but to have an early warning of “where each person is coming from”.

Key Elements

The four main motivators making up a person’s ambition are the following:

  1. Striving for Achievement. Many people are driven to realize something of value – to be successful at some skill or activity. It can be as small as improving their golf handicap or increasing sales, and as large as building a company or saving lives. The satisfaction can come from reaching the goal, but also from making progress and doing better than expected. But the motivation can just as well come from the prestige of achieving more than others. It can be about being recognized as better, or even the best, and then being admired, praised, or even immortalized, because of the accomplishment.
  2. Striving for Virtue. Besides doing well, you can also be good – instead of focusing on achieving a goal, ensuring that your behavior en route to the goal is morally sound. You can strive to act with integrity, honesty, and honor. The satisfaction can come from knowing that you have done the ethically right thing, but also from the resulting trust that others will have in you. But here too the motivation can come from the prestige of being morally superior to others. It can be about being recognized as more righteous, principled, and exemplary, and then being respected, praised, or even idolized for it.
  3. Striving for Affiliation. As social animals, people also strive to be connected to others – to have meaningful relations. This can be a loose relationship in which a person is seen, accepted and respected, or a tighter relationship of friendship or love. The satisfaction can come from feeling psychologically safe in the presence of the other, all the way to feeling a sense of affection and belonging. At the same time, belonging to a specific group can be an enormous boost to a person’s social standing. The motivation can be to be seen as part of the in-crowd, and then to be looked up to and to be given special privileges.
  4. Striving for Power. As willful animals, people also strive to have control over the situation – to be able to determine what happens. This can be influence over your own future, by having the resources and autonomy to act, but can also be influence over others. The satisfaction can come from having the freedom to find your own way, but also from having the clout to get your own way. But here too the motivation can come from being seen as more powerful than others. It can be about being recognized as stronger and potentially more forceful, leading others to take you more into account, or even to be more compliant.

Key Insights

  • Motivation drives people’s goal-directed behavior. People do things for many reasons, such as fear, hope, habit, belief, and situation, so understanding their behavior is difficult. But a considerable influence on thinking and acting are the goals that people intentionally strive to realize. When these motives for behavior are consistent, they form an ambition.
  • Motivation comes from striving for four main goals. People can pursue four types of goals: achievement (having success), virtue (being good), affiliation (being connected) and power (having control). For most people, all four will be part of their motivation, but their ambition will focus on one or two of them.
  • Motivation can be intrinsic or socially-driven. People can pursue each of these goals as desirable in themselves, or because they give higher social standing – people can be motivated to play status games, being better than others at each of the four goals. Intrinsic and socially-driven motivation usually go together, but one dominates the other.
  • Motivation can be tracked with a radar screen. Few managers have the skill, time, and circumstances to paint a detail psychological portrait of the people around them. A more pragmatic approach is to quickly spot where people’s behavior is coming from, by screening them with a more rough-grained tool, such as the ambition radar screen.
  • Motivation screening is more useful than personality type indicators. It is fashionable to use MBTI, DISC or Management Drives to give people a quick label (“you are blue, that’s why you act that way”). Reflecting on people’s motivations requires a bit more effort, but generally offers much more insight into their behavior and how to influence it.




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