Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Understanding Motivation

You can’t always get into the head of another person. Even if this were possible, understanding what motivates another person can be so complex that even that person is unaware of their motivations. However, to a certain degree, the essence of leadership is getting others to do what you need them to do -- as if it were their original plan. While you may not be able to specifically identify another person’s motives, there is a good rule of thumb that was developed by Kenneth Burke called "dramatism."


The great Canadian rock band Rush once sang, “All the world’s indeed a stage, and we are merely players.” To be fair, they borrowed this notion from William Shakespeare who noted that each person is like the star actor in their own play. Kenneth Burke developed his theory of dramatism based on this notion. If you understand that people see themselves as the star of their own drama, this can be the first step towards making a good guess as to what motivates them. If you can at the very least think in terms of how other people are motivated, you are better able to develop compassion for them. With compassion, you are better able to understand another person’s needs and how to meet those needs while motivating the person to help meet your or your organization's needs.

The Pentad

The key aspect of Burke’s dramatism is referred to as the pentad, but if you have ever taken a class in journalism, you may recognize the pentad in another form -- the five W’s. The pentad and the five W’s are similar and both allow you to think about who is doing what to whom and how and why they are doing it. Here is the Pentad and how it relates to the Five W’s:

  • Scene. The scene of something is the same thing as the Where and the When of the five W’s. This doesn’t merely refer to the physical place where something may be occurring but to the overall environment as well. When and where something occurs may explain exactly why the situation is playing out the way it is.
  • Agent. This refers to the actor or actors in a given situation. This also corresponds to the Who in the five W’s. When you look for motives behind people’s behaviors, who they are can be one source of motives, but their environment and the other factors of the pentad could also be sources for motives. For example, someone who comes to work not dressed properly may be simply rebelling against work policies. In this case, the motive is more about this particular person. Another possible motive, however, is that this person has been out of work so long that they do not have the nice clothes needed to meet the office policy. In this case, the motive is not really about the person or agent but more about the scene or situation, this person having been out of work so long as to not have the appropriate clothes.
  • Act. The act is similar to the What in the five W’s. It is the action that is taking place in a given situation. If you assigned some work to an employee who didn’t finish the work in the time you expected, you could look at motivation in terms of the agent. In this case, the employee needs more training or maybe doesn’t work as hard as you would expect. However, another possible “motive” lies in the action itself. Perhaps the task you assigned is a complicated enough task that cannot be accomplished in the time you expect, or this can at least be a major factor.
  • Agency. The agency aspect of the Pentad does not strictly conform to the Five W’s; however, if you add the question of How, this gets to what agency is referring. In the previous example, the nature of the work that you assigned to the employee might be difficult, and you may already realize that the employee is a diligent worker who tends to perform well. However, if the employee picked an inefficient way to go about working on the assignment, this could explain why it didn’t meet your expectations. This would place the “motive” under agency where the problem is not the act itself nor the agent or scene, but instead the problem is in how the agent is going about doing the act.
  • Purpose. The purpose part of the pentad corresponds to the Why of the five W’s. Imagine that in our previous example you gave an assignment to an employee who didn’t complete the assignment in what you considered was a reasonable amount of time. If you have looked at all the other aspects of the pentad to get an idea of why this is so, analyzing the purpose may help. Perhaps your employee didn’t understand why this task was necessary or what it was trying to accomplish.

As you can see, when you use the pentad to analyze situations, it allows you to think about all the different aspects of a situation. An effective leader won’t simply blame the employee for not living up to an expectation. Instead, leaders who are effective can analyze the different aspects of a situation in terms of the pentad to understand the situation better. It may turn out that the employee was perfectly justified in not living up to an expectation, and you have saved both the employee and yourself the hard feelings created from a misplaced lecture.

Until next time ...


Sheryl Tuchman, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

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