29 September, 2020

Using the ‘Drive to Defend’ Psychology to Enhance Employee Engagement

The rise of information technology coupled with an ambitious, self-determined workforce, is the definition of the future of work. Studies show that the youngest Generation Z- the latest ones to enter the workforce- are more ambitious, independent and competitive than any of their predecessors. They not only work hard to achieve their goals, but also demand to be rewarded for it. They also prefer tangible rewards rather than pursuing vague ideals of satisfaction.

Personality traits like competitiveness and self-reliance stem from an ancient human biological drive called the ‘Drive to Defend’ which is present in all human beings in varying degrees, as explained by two Harvard professors in their iconic work Driven: The Four Drives Underlying Our Human Nature. The ‘Drive to Defend’ can be defined as the human instinctive need to defend one’s identity and self-worth, along with the people, achievements and personality traits that define this ‘sense of self’. It has been explained by neurologists and behavioral scientists through the ledger or accounting system in the human brain. A part of the brain is responsible for storing information about all our tangible and intangible achievements including power, status and relationships which act like ‘assets’, forming our sense of self-worth. Anything that threatens this sense of self, including the deprivation of resources, reputation, and in the case of Gen Z’s- independence and appropriate rewards, leads to the triggering of the negative side of the ‘Drive to Defend’ namely anger, fear and jealousy. Such emotions, when left unattended, can lead to passivity, helplessness and ultimately disengagement. Thus, by criticizing or ignoring employees’ contributions, organizations end up doing the opposite of motivating them- they create internal antagonists which damage the employer brand. This is reiterated by recent statistics which show that disengaged employees in India are 5% ‘strongly likely’ to recommend their organizations to a friend, as opposed to 51% employees who are engaged.

However, it is essential to remember that it was these same protective instincts that helped humans escape adversity in ancient times. The drive to defend can act as a strong source of motivation when used for the right reasons, that is, justifying the mission of the team and organization. It is time for organizations to become one of the ‘assets’ in an employee’s mental account- a source of pride which they work hard to uphold and defend. Following are some ways in which organizations can leverage the drive to defend for increased employee engagement, particularly for Gen Zs

  1. Promoting the ‘Drive to Bond’ in Gen Zs, by fostering an environment of collaboration where individuals feel the need to defend their entire team’s work and not just their own. This can make them understand their importance within the team and organization
  2. Channeling their competitive instincts to compete with the market, rather than with peers within the organization, through a gamified incentive platform
  3. Including their ideas and suggestions at the corporate decision making level through Surveys, thus helping them trust that their ideas are not taken for granted
  4. Maintaining open, transparent communication about the organization’s policies, particularly relating to performance assessment
  5. Developing mentoring relationships with Gen Zs through timely, constructive feedback, instead of criticizing and micro-managing them
  6. Offering tangible performance rewards like cash or physical goods, along with a visible ‘ledger’ of achievements through an employee recognition leaderboard and social walls

goalkeeper defending the goal

As organizations seek ways to grow and adapt to future trends, there is an increasing need for them to identify the role of the drive to defend in strengthening their employee engagement program. Gen Z’s in particular, have a stronger sense of pragmatism, even if it means ignoring the more traditional path, to achieve outcomes. Organizations will need to give them the means and tools to voice their opinion and justify their way of doing things, if they want to tap into this large, dynamic, future cohort of leaders.