Using Motivations to Turbo-Charge Your Career

Sean K. Murphy

In sales, you look for every competitive edge. So recent developments in the field of psychology that point to intrinsic motivations as the key to peak creativity and performance could help sales professionals.

First it’s important to understand what motivations are and how they work. There are two major types:

Intrinsic: Deeply personal values and beliefs.

Extrinsic: Tangible rewards, such as pay, or consequences, such as punishment.

Intrinsic motivations are the most powerful personal drivers because they represent your deepest needs. Extrinsic motivations are about what others want from you and can undermine your performance.

The bottom line: Intrinsic motivations are what make you thrive.

How Motivations Work

Motivations are things like your sense of accomplishment in closing a huge deal, belonging to a team, security in knowing you’re good at what you do and freedom to chart your own course. Each of us has a set of core motivations, and how we define them can differ. For example, one sales person may value personal freedom to prospect in the way that suits them, while another is driven by the need to belong to a sales team.

Motivations also influence how we relate to one another. Here’s an example from research I’ve conducted into how motivations define conflict and compatibility in any relationship—including at work.

Person A has these motivations:

  • Individual freedom: valuing personal freedom above all else.
  • Resourceful: having the capacity to create new things.
  • Caring: being a thoughtful, creative person, who has relationships that endure.

Person B has this motivational set:

  • Self: a strong sense of self-confidence.
  • Order: being most effective as a strategist and “idea person” who prefers to leave the details to others.
  • Authentic: comfortable presenting one’s true self to others.

Motivations are predictive of behavior, so what do these different motivational profiles mean in terms of how these people work together? First, these people share a deep connection because they’re both motivated to create new things. That’s a lot of positive energy and these two people will “click” in a work environment where creativity is valued.
At the same time, they’re likely to come in conflict with each other. The first person tends to be an active planner while the second prefers to be the “idea person.” Imagine the arguments. The planner is frustrated because the “idea person” blows off the details of meeting with a prospect or conducting a discovery call and doesn’t seem to value all the work that goes into them. The second person wonders why the other wastes time and talent worrying about over-preparing and the “little things” that don’t appear to close deals.

If both these people knew and shared their motivations, their work relationship could be much stronger. They could become natural partners by understanding and respecting their “big picture” versus the “little details” that cause conflict. One colleague could nurture the great ideas and the other could make sure they happen, ultimately helping fulfill each other’s intrinsic motivations.

Motivations and Better Salesmanship

On the most fundamental level, if you understand your motivations, you can make a more informed decision about whether you should be in sales, and what kind of sales you should be doing. In terms of job performance, the insight can help in these specific ways:

  1. Self-awareness: You’re more in touch with your own behaviors and how they affect others. Motivations provide a roadmap for leaning into your “best” behaviors and away from old patterns that derail progress.
  2. Greater value: If your motivations and work goals are aligned, research says it can lead to greater vitality, job satisfaction and more effective performance. That makes you more valuable to your company and your customers.
  3. Team player: Knowing yourself and what drives your behavior can help improve how you manage conflicts and get along with others. You’ll also be easier to get along with because happy people are more flexible.

The most effective salespeople want to meet their customers’ deepest needs. Can understanding your motivations help with that? Only to the extent that you embrace your own motivational profile and filter what others say and do through that lens. Your opportunity is to demonstrate motivational awareness and empathy.

How To Identify Motivations

While there’s lots of research on the importance of motivations, there’s very little on how to reliably identify them. Here are a couple of ways to do it:

  1. Rate yourself: A Google search will net you different lists of motivations, ranging from 16 to 24. One method is to rank the list from least to most important. The challenge is you may miss a few, very important, unconscious motivations. Everyone has blind spots.
  2. Take a test: A personality assessment can help give you direction, but it’s best to find the ones that provide insight you find useful. There are various options, with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) being one of the most available online. Another tool is the Predictive Index, which is a “free-choice tool” in which individuals choose the words that best describe themselves as opposed to being limited by multiple-choice answers. And there is the Inside8 test, which people can use to identify and understand their motivations by answering 22 questions. The frustration with most personality tests is that they work on a surface level, identifying characteristics and traits, not motivations. Characteristics and traits are what you do; motivations are why you do what you do.

At its core, sales is about meeting peoples’ needs. The opportunity is to become a better sales person by understanding your deepest motivations and identifying with others on that more powerful emotional, connective level.

Sean K. Murphy is a Columbia University-trained social psychology practitioner and founder of, creators of a new tool for identifying individual motivations.