3 Psychological Frameworks that Help Increase Your Drive as an Entrepreneur

This blog post is a summary of the AtA 2021 session, “Organizational Health, It Starts with Your Team!” hosted by Anna Moller.

Anna Moller is a team member of TuConsejeria (YourCounseling), a social organization increasing access to mental health services in Latin America. Through their vocational counseling service, Ana has seen how emotional health impacts the business sector. When individuals lack awareness or agency regarding past traumas, they may find it difficult to advance in their careers. This is especially true for entrepreneurs who often face long periods of difficulty before realizing results.

One of TuConsejeria’s core beliefs is that the foundation of entrepreneurship is people. People are the ones that come up with business plans, execute strategy, and pour their lives into projects. Unfortunately, many accelerators, incubators, and investment organizations overlook the deepest behaviors that drive (or limit) founders toward success. Emphasis is placed instead on metrics, cost flow, and logistics – not emotional health. However, entrepreneurship is a deeply personal endeavor that involves stress, uncertainty, and a deep need for determination. ESOs and entrepreneurs that fail to address the whole person risk limiting the potential of their partner startups.

What Drives You as an Entrepreneur?

Discovering the right answers begins with asking the right questions. TuConsejeria likes to ask entrepreneurs about their inner drives. What passions and motivations help you overcome obstacles and hardships? To help guide you or your partner entrepreneurs through this question, here are three psychological frameworks that illuminate common motivations for human behavior.

McClelland’s Theory of Needs

David McClelland was a Harvard professor who spent his career researching motivations. He summarized his research in a unique theory of needs. He determined that all people have three core needs that drive our ambitions, work styles, and relationships with others. The three needs can be categorized like this:

  • Power 
    • What impact can we have on others and our surroundings? 
    • How can we influence others to follow our requests? 
    • How can we affect change in our lives?
  • Achievement 
    • Where can we excel in relation to other people?
    • What achievements can be won? 
    • What should we strive for?
  • Affiliation 
    • How can we establish new relationships?
    • What do we do to maintain those relationships?
    • How do we conform to the behaviors of others to be accepted?

Take some time to consider these three needs and note which you feel most drawn to. This will help illuminate what drives you as an entrepreneur. Remember that needs change based on culture and context. For example, many urban financial hubs value achievement over affiliation.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Another common framework for understanding a person’s motivation is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The basic premise behind this theory is that human beings focus on fundamental needs first, and once those needs are met, they move on to “higher” needs. Finding food is considered a fundamental need while expressing one’s creativity through art is a higher need.

Many entrepreneurs are driven by higher needs. Some founders start businesses to help their communities while other founders are taken by the creative aspects of entrepreneurship. These motivations fall along the lines of esteem and self-actualization.

Reference the diagram below for more ideas on motivation.

Transactional Analysis Theory

The final psychological framework we will cover in this article is Transactional Analysis Theory created by Eric Berne. By this point, you may have noticed some discomfort while examining your different needs and motivations. For many of us, our needs go unmet. Perhaps a coworker does not give us respect. Perhaps you feel that a project that once felt spontaneous and fulfilling has become dull and boring. 

In addition, you may notice that you exhibit behaviors that prevent you from filling those needs. Such behaviors might include self-sabotage, lack of confidence, or alienating others. When an investor compliments your business plan, you might take a self-deprecating stance. Or you might reject opportunities to take on more responsibility because you’re afraid of the shame that comes with a potential failure. 

The good news is that everybody struggles with vulnerability. You’re not alone. Past traumas affect how we relate to the world, and counselors, therapists, and mentors can help us grow into fully actualized people. This is why taking a person-centered view of entrepreneurship is so important – our deepest needs for human connection will affect the way we show up in business. The success of a startup often depends on whether or not founders receive emotional support. 

Transactional Analysis Theory helps us identify areas where we can support ourselves,  team members, and entrepreneurs. The theory is based on the idea of “strokes.” Strokes are the basic unit of recognition. A smile, encouraging text, or pat on the arm are all strokes. They are the means by which we know that other people acknowledge our existence. It’s important to note that strokes can be positive or negative. Negative recognition is still recognition.

Things get complicated once strokes are understood in terms of a “stroke economy.” Growing up, most children subconsciously learn the game of their family’s stroke economy. A stroke economy consists of the rules set up to control the administration of recognition. For example, if a boy has a father who only compliments him when he wins a basketball game, the boy realizes that achievement is the basis of his family’s stroke economy. Or if a girl gets the most attention from her mother after acting out in class and being sent to the principal’s office, the girl might develop a habit of causing trouble in order to receive attention from superiors. 

Therefore, explore your own personal stroke economy. How do your family, culture, and current work environment motivate certain behaviors? How does one context influence the other? Is your inability to accept constructive feedback (because of a critical father) hurting your work relationships? Understanding what environments meet your emotional needs will increase your drive as an entrepreneur.

Likewise, how can entrepreneur support organizations foster conversations among founders that bring about more understanding? How can you equip them to succeed? While conversations should remain professional, it doesn’t mean conversations can’t address personal issues at all. All of us are motivated by different impulses. The sooner we recognize the diverse experiences of those around us, the sooner we’ll be able to create healthy teams, accelerators, and ESOs.