All Articles Leadership Careers The danger of being driven at work

The danger of being driven at work

What’s the source of your drive, where is it taking you, and why?

6 min read


susan fowler danger of driving graphic
Credit: Susan Fowler

“Be careful of being driven. If you are driven, who is doing the driving?”

I heard this old adage many years ago, and ever since, “being driven” has held a negative connotation for me. I never liked the idea of something or someone outside of myself controlling me.

Listening to most business conversations, however, it is clear I’m in the minority. Just try to have a business conversation without using the word “drive.” We drive for results. Drive for performance. Identify growth drivers.

Being described as having lots of drive is typically considered a good thing. A person with low drive is considered weak, lacking stamina, or having low energy. “Inner drive” can be considered a positive. On this last point, I could concede, but it depends on the nature of the inner drive.

What’s the source of your drive, where is it taking you, and why?

An executive in a prestigious electronics company, Brandt, described himself to me as “intensely driven.” With his permission, I questioned: Why do you say you are driven? By what? Who is doing the driving? Are you driven by the promise of money, rewards, power, or status? Are you driven to dispel fear, shame, or guilt? Are you driven to avoid disappointing someone important or yourself?”

Brandt admitted he was longing for something he couldn’t define. He felt out of balance physically, mentally, and emotionally. Together we explored the

  • Underlying reasons for his intense work behavior, which was affecting the quality of his family life
  • Gap between values he espoused versus the values he was living, which was affecting his health
  • Difference between his dreams and his reality, which was unfulfilling and a disappointment

It didn’t take long for Brandt to discover that “being driven” is another way of saying “I am not in control.”

Brandt began to acknowledge that external factors were driving him and prompting his emotions, feelings and actions. Those factors, it turned out, stemmed from his need to prove himself, fueled by a desire to impress his father, who happened to be a legend in the computer industry. Discovering that unexplored emotions and beliefs are at the root of dysfunctional behavior is not a revolutionary idea. But, the motivation science explaining why they are at the root of dysfunctional behavior is groundbreaking.

Dysfunctional behavior is a response to our psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness and competence being thwarted, eroded or undermined. When these three psychological needs are satisfied, we experience senses of control, meaning and the ability to cope with what life throws us. When we understand that our autonomy, relatedness and competence needs are at the root of our motivation and dysfunctional behavior, we can act.

Brandt had been driven for years by external needs. His “inner drive” was driven by the fear of letting his father, himself and his family down. His drive to live up to self-imposed standards, as measured through promotions, financial success and public recognition, had robbed him of his autonomy. His desire to avoid shame or guilt by pleasing his father prevented him from experiencing a true and authentic sense of their relationship or from finding true meaning in his work (relatedness). Brandt’s competence always felt diminished when compared to his perception of his father’s competence.

Brandt was highly driven, but to all the wrong places for the wrong reasons.

Anti-drive theory

Drive theory is one of the most popular motivational theories of the past 100 years. It made sense based on the idea that you are motivated to get what you don’t have. If you are thirsty, you are driven to drink; if you are hungry, you are driven to eat. The problem with drive theory as a general theory of motivation is that, after you drink or eat, your need is satiated and you are no longer driven to drink or eat until your body is deficient again.

The idea that motivation stems from psychological needs — not drives — is an important distinction. Autonomy, relatedness and competence are the opposite of drives. Drives dissipate when they are satiated. However, when psychological needs are satisfied, you experience such positive energy, vitality and sense of well-being that you want more!

When you are driven by money, power, status, guilt, shame and fear, it’s like trying to be healthy on junk food. When you are driven by external or imposed motivation, research shows that you will not experience the quality of energy that sustains action over time. The quality of your action will not be as creative or productive as being optimally motivated by satisfying your psychological needs of autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

Experiencing autonomy, relatedness and competence promotes thriving. You do not need something or someone else doing the driving.

Two years after the conversation with Brandt, I met him at a business lunch. I didn’t recognize him! He had lost weight and literally transformed his physical appearance. “What happened?” I asked? He told me he had grasped the danger of drive and focused instead on experiencing autonomy, relatedness and competence.

He smiled broadly as he explained, “For years I was trying to survive on junk food motivation. I was eating way too many french fries — literally and psychologically.”


Is the reason for your motivation driven or based on satisfying psychological needs? To find out, take the Motivational Outlook Assessment at It’s free and you get immediate results.

Susan Fowler implores leaders to stop trying to motivate people. In her latest bestselling book, she explains “Why Motivating People Doesn’t Work … And What Does: The New Science of Leading, Engaging, and Energizing. She is the author of by-lined articles, peer-reviewed research, and six books, including the bestselling “Self Leadership” and the “One Minute Manager” with Ken Blanchard. Tens of thousands of people worldwide have learned from her ideas through training programs, such as the Situational Self Leadership and Optimal Motivation product lines. For more information, visit

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.