What Affiliation Motivation Has To Do With Remote Work Culture

Dr. Brad Cousins

Dr. Brad Cousins designs strategy and coaches transformational change as CEO/Founder of Ingage Human Capital Strategies and a Vistage Chair. 

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The grind of uncertain environments and the isolation of remote work can take its toll on organizations. In uncertainty, we can know the cause and effect of a crisis but intensity and duration remain vague, shattering optimism and shaking even the most faithful team members. The emotional effects and associated behaviors of uncertainty become more pronounced the longer the environment persists. As a consequence, organizations and leaders are seeing a host of fight, flight or freeze behaviors including overused strengths, a lack of an ability to focus and a lack of engagement. Leaders are awakening to the brutal reality that culture is fragile.

“Culture” is a word vaguely understood even by the greatest of organizations and leaders. In my experience, if you ask leaders or organizational development people what culture is, you will get a stammering reply of vagueness wrapped in buzzwords about people. Culture has many definitions but for the purposes of this article, we will define organizational culture as the social and psychological ecosystem created to achieve a shared purpose. At its most basic level, culture is an ecosystem — a common set of norms, values, beliefs and ways of doing things that facilitate a psychological commitment to the organization. It’s a social contract.

What drives this need to be a part of something? In his 1938 book Explorations in Personality, psychologist Henry Murray referred to this as “affiliation need.” Affiliation need is described as a need for harmonious relationships and a sense of communion. Social psychology research has shown that people with a high level of affiliation experience less extreme fear or high anxiety, such as those evident in uncertain environments. Quite simply, strong cultures provide positive bonds and group safety to lean on during tough times, making everyone stronger together!

High-performing organizations understand the need to affiliate and are intentional about motivating people to develop deep bonds with the group. People have psychological drives and those drives create needs. If we predict drives, we can design our affiliative culture by leveraging the power or team analytics to determine an individual’s fit with the team and its associated culture. Team-based analytics view a person along four main factors: the drive to collaborate or be independent, whether a person values people or tasks, the need for stability or variety and the response to rules and structure. Proactively, we identify common needs present in teams to design culture based on what noted psychologist David McClelland refers to in his book Human Motivation as “affiliation motivation.”MORE FOR YOUHow To Adopt An Omnichannel Selling StrategyMicrosoft’s New ‘Productivity Score’ Lets Your Boss Monitor How Often You Use Email And Attend Video Meetings15 Persuasive Ways To Show Your Tech Team’s Productivity

Affiliation motivation is based on shared purpose and a common set of core values. Similar to how people form bonds of trust based on an authentic relationship, people also form an affiliation with organizations based on an authentic culture. To create strong bonds of affiliation or culture, an organization must authentically follow its guiding core values and stated purpose. Chief executives are not required to be transformational, charismatic or visionary in their leadership style, however, they must understand what their organization is about and why their people affiliate with the organization. If the organization is highly technical and values specific expertise then the leader needs to motivate with this affiliation in mind, rewarding and reinforcing for technical aptitude and accomplishments. By rewarding this technical aptitude, organizations will attract people who are driven by a need for this type of affiliation and fit their culture.

Organizations and leaders should focus on three key drivers of affiliation motivation: vision, purpose and values. Building any great culture begins with a leader’s ability to articulate why the organization exists or its reason for being. Once the organization understands why it exists, it must have a vision for the impact the organization will make on its employees, customers and community. The vision of where the organization is going must be compelling, simple to understand and easy to communicate inside and outside of the organization. As the vision attracts people to affiliate, values are the gatekeeper for who the organization allows on their journey and how to manage affiliation. Being intentional, consistent and authentic with vision, purpose and values will increase the bonds of affiliation, thereby resulting in a great culture.