Power, Prestige or Money: What Drives Us

“All the people in this room are motivated by power, prestige, or money. Which do you think is most important?”

That was the question asked of me recently by a managing director of a large European bank who had asked me to speak to about 200 top executives. Let’s take them one by one.

I remember David McClelland, my mentor years ago in grad school, making a crucial distinction among people who are motivated by power: whether they seek power simply to aggrandize themselves, or for something beyond themselves. The first group, the genuinely power-hungry, include “unhealthy” narcissists and Machiavellians – people who care only about their own goals, without caring about the consequences for other people of what they do (as I detail in the chapter on the “dark triad” in my book Social Intelligence).

In contrast, those with what McClelland called “socialized” power seek to influence others not just for their own goals, but for greater concerns – whether for their team, family, organization, or a cause. From an organizational point of view, people driven by personal power present a danger – they don’t care whether what they do furthers the common good. Those who wield socialized power, however, can be good or even great leaders.

As for prestige, there’s another distinction: between those who seek glory through over-selling their merits, and those who get prestige through a well-earned reputation. The first motive leads people to hype themselves, fabricate, exaggerate. The second kind of reputation is more robust, since it comes as a natural byproduct of other people recognizing sound effort or good work.

Finally, money. Here McClelland had an intriguing insight. In his studies of the achievement motive – the drive to continually improve one’s own performance, he showed that this was the main driver in highly successful entrepreneurs. And the most successful among them regarded the money they made as a way of keeping score on how well they were doing, not as the end in itself. Their real driver was a very high internal standard of performance and the continual push to find ways to do even better.

However, I didn’t mention any of that in giving my answer to that director at the Spanish bank. Instead I told him that what I felt was most important as a motivator was a sense of meaning and purpose in what we do. If our efforts fit with our driving sense of values and life mission, then we will be energized. I’ve known many people who were caught up in the pursuit of money, power or prestige as ends in themselves, who only found that getting those things left them feeling empty – it was meaningless, a rat race. Of course Abraham Maslow pointed out that there is a hierarchy of human need – if you are poor, powerless, and suffering, then money and power make sense as goals. But once those are satisfied, other goals become more important – and a meaningful purpose or life mission trumps them all.

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