The Motivation Spectrum–M.S. Srinivasan.

(Published in Chartered Secretary, Journal of the Institute of Company Secretary of India, June, 2008)

When we examine the history of motivational theories from the ancient to the modern age, we find two major categories of thought.  First is the ego- transcending motivation theories of ancient, eastern spiritual tradition.  Second is the ego-driven motivation model of modern management.  Both are needed for the integral development of the human potential in an organization.  The ancient eastern thought, basing itself on the insights of a transpersonal psychology, always held the view that to realize the highest potential of our human organism we have to raise beyond our ego-bound small self and enter into our higher and greater self, which is free from ego and universal.  However, this has to be achieved by passing through the motives of the lower self.  What is needed at present is a synthesis of the ancient-spiritual and modern-secular motivational models.  This article is an attempt to arrive at such a synthesis by linking them through an evolutionary spectrum of human motives.

Key Perspectives: Fundamentals of Motivation; Ego-driven motivation; Higher Motives; Towards Ego-transcending Motivation: Some Strategic Perspectives

Fundamentals of Motivation

There is at present a growing recognition among management thinkers and professionals that motivation is not something which can be generalized or standardized like the McDonald’s hamburger; it requires a clear understanding of each employee as a human being and a flexible application of this understanding to the unique motivational needs of each individual.

The first step in motivation is to understand the psychological and environmental factors, which drive the behaviour and action of employees and inspire them to excel in their work.  There are two major factors involved in motivation.  First is the level of mental and emotional development of the individual which determine his or her inner needs, aspirations, values and attitudes to work, life and action.  Second is the economic, social and cultural condition or environment, which determines the aspirations, values and attitudes he or she imbibes from the society.  These two factors not only vary with each individual, group or nation but also change with the progressive evolution of the individual and the group.  The modern motivation theories of the West have identified many human motives like the need for survival, security, self-esteem, affiliation, power, growth, achievement, self-actualisation.

The second step is to apply this understanding to create a dynamic work-environment which promotes desirable behaviour and discourages undesirable behaviour.  And what is desirable behaviour depends on the goals, perceptions and values of the management of the organization.  In practical terms this involves a system of incentives for desirable behaviour and disincentives for undesirable behaviour.  The incentives may be material like money or non-material like promotion or career growth, more power and responsibility, greater freedom, better working conditions or opportunities for self or professional development.  The modern managerial ideal of motivation is self-motivation.  The self-motivated employee does not need any external awards for getting motivated because he takes joy and finds fulfilment in the work itself.

Ego-driven motivation

The basic assumption of modern motivational theories is that human nature or the ego is an obstinate seeker of rewards.  The task of motivation is to pamper the ego with rewards for desirable behaviour or performance and threaten it with disincentives for unwanted behaviour and performance.  This assumption is to a large extent valid for the ego in our lower nature which needs a constant dose of stimulating recognition to remain motivated.  It is now recognized that Money or monetary rewards no longer satisfies when the basic material needs and luxuries of the individual are fulfilled.  But when the desire for money ceases to be the motivator it takes higher forms in the social and psychological level like for example, the desire for power, prestige, position, authority, status, career advancement or at least a sheer recognition in the form of a word of appreciation, a pat, or a smile or some form of fondling of the child of vanity in us!

Even the ideal of self-motivation can be full of ego without any moral or spiritual element in it; it may be based on the narrow personal fulfilment or happiness of the ego taking joy in a self-actualising work.  So the self-motivated self-actualiser can be as ego-centric, or even more, as those who are supposedly in the lower levels of motivation.  However, the self-motivated individual can be considered as at a higher level of motivation than the one who is driven exclusively by external motivators.

But as Sri Aurobindo points out “ego is the helper and ego is the bar” (Sri Aurobindo, 1972).  So modern motivational theories are valid for those who are in that stage of evolution where ego is the helper in their evolutionary progress.  At present, the number of people in this stage of development may be very large or even a majority. But there are already a growing number of people who are seeking for an inner moral and spiritual fulfilment in work and their number is likely to increase and multiply with the rapid spiritual awakening of humanity in the future.  And for this growing group of seekers of inner fulfilment, modern motivational theories and practices based on ego may not be entirely effective.  Because many of them may be in a higher stage of development when ego is not a helper but an obstacle to their further development.  For the higher levels of inner fulfilment comes not by nurturing the ego and remaining within its narrow confines but by rising beyond the ego into the vastness of a higher and a more universal consciousness.

So the need of the future is not an ego-driven motivation but an ego-transcending motivation.  Here comes the importance of the Indian spiritual paradigm on motivation.

The Higher Motives

The ancient Indian thought recognized all the ego-motives of the modern motivational theories and viewed them as some of the aims of life.  But the Indian seers also perceived a higher nature in man with moral and spiritual motives, which can uplift the human being beyond the motives of his physical and vital ego to a higher level of motivation, fulfilment and creativity.  The key to this higher motivation lies in that higher need or urge in man for self-dedication, service or surrender to a moral cause or spiritual ideal which transcends the self-interest of the ego.  The path to this higher motivation is not by nurturing or flattering the ego but by loss of ego, partially through moral self-dedication and fully in a spiritual consciousness.

But how or in what way this ego-transcending motivation is superior to the ego-driven motivation?  In the Indian spiritual perspective, the true self of a human being or the true individual is not the ego but a universal, eternal and unconditioned being, consciousness, and energy with an inherent and eternal delight in it.  Ego is only a temporary and conditioned formation which limits, confines and veils the true self of the individual and prevents it from coming into contact with his higher potentialities.  The ego limits the consciousness, creative energy and the inherent delight of our being.  So loss of ego means, in proportion to the loss, expansion of our being and consciousness and as a result increases of understanding, energy, sympathy and delight of being.  And when there is a total annihilation of ego, our consciousness, is projected into the infinite and universal consciousness of our highest self.  But this applies only to those who are in the higher levels of development with a well-developed and individualized egos.  For those who are in the lower stages of evolution with a weak and underdeveloped ego, if they try to prematurely dissolve their ego, they may sink into the subconscious instead of raising to the super-conscious.  For we have to first develop our ego and raise it to a certain level of self-consciousness before it can be safely dismantled into higher levels of consciousness beyond ego.

There are two stages in our progress from ego-driven motivation to the higher ego-transcending motivation.  The first stage is self-dedication or service to a mental, moral or social ideal beyond the desires and interests of our physical and emotional ego.  The second stage is a spiritual self-surrender to a transcendent and universal Reality. The moral self-dedication does not eliminate the ego but only enlarges it or loosens or softens its knots.  The ethical motive can be full of the ego of the do-gooder.  As Sri Aurobindo exposes the altruistic ego with his piercing Yogic insight.

 “Even charity and altruism are often essentially egoistic in their immediate motive.  They are stirred by the discomfort of the sight of suffering to the nervous system, or by the pleasurableness of other’s appreciation of our kindliness or by the egoistic appreciation of our own benevolence, or by the need of indulgence in sympathy.  They are philanthropist who would be troubled if the poor were not always with us, for then they would have no field for their charity.” (Sri Aurobindo, 1972)

 But the moral motives and the ethical discipline are indispensable preparatory stages to the higher levels of spiritual motivation which can be realized only through a ruthless elimination of ego and desire from every level of our being.  Such a total elimination of ego can be accomplished only through a psychological and spiritual discipline of vigilant self-awareness, or deep meditation or selfless work or total surrender to a higher divine Power.

Thus there are four stages in the Motivation Spectrum.  First is the ego-driven motivation through external rewards; second, self-motivation through taking joy in work; third, ethical motivation through self-dedication to a mental, moral and social ideal.  Fourth, spiritual motivation through elimination of ego and desire.  Let us now examine briefly how to traverse this motivational spectrum.

Towards Ego-transcending Motivation: Some Strategic Perspectives

The spiritual paradigm of motivation may raise some legitimate questions in the pragmatic mind of the manager.  If ego and desire are removed, will it not lead to the elimination of the very roots of action?  To answer this question, we should have some understanding of the Indian spiritual vision of action.  We will not enter into a detailed discussion of this subject.  We will only indicate briefly one of the basic spiritual insights of Indian yoga, which is at the core of ancient India theory of action.  According to this Indian perspective, the source of all human and cosmic action, called as Karma in Indian thought, is not the individual ego and desire but the eternal and universal creative energy of the Divine, which is the origin of all energy – physical, vital, mental and spiritual – in the individual and the universe.  So our individual energy and action is only a partial and instrumental spark and stir of the universal action and energy of a divine force.  So, elimination of ego and desire need not necessarily lead to cessation of action.  Action can still proceed from a deeper spiritual source beyond human ego and desire.

However, this spiritual perception may not be practically valid for the average man who needs the push of ego and desire and rewards to remain active and motivated.  So the skeptical query of the modern manager regarding renunciation of ego and desire is legitimate.  But we are not proposing this higher spiritual motivation as something which has to be imposed from above on all irrespective of their evolutionary status or development.   It has to be offered and held before the people as an ideal, which has to be voluntarily embraced and not imposed from above with the fiat of authority.

Every individual in the organization has to be educated and awakened to the motivation spectrum.  But those who are inwardly prepared and interested in the higher motivation have to be shown the path to realize the higher motives in their life and action and provided with sufficient encouragement and opportunities to pursue the path.  Here interest and fitness go together.  Only those who have passed through the circuits of the ego-driven life and attained to a certain level of mental, emotional and moral development may be ready for and genuinely interested in the higher paradigm of motivation.  Others who are not interested in the higher ideals of motivation are probably not ready for it and need the ego-desire motives for their evolution and progress.  They may be the majority group in the organization and the traditional ego-driven strategies may be applied for their motivation.

However, in our approach we emphasize that no individual in the organization should remain unaware of the higher motives.  Every individual has to be awakened to the higher motives and encouraged to aspire for it.  A culture and an environment has to be created which promotes and encourages this higher evolution of the individual and the group.  But this higher evolution cannot be induced by managerial manipulations or decrees.  It has to blossom from within freely and naturally as a flower blooms.  The key to this higher evolution lies in inspired leadership, which can awaken the higher motives in others by communicating its own inner state of awakening to them.  Someone who is awakened to the higher motives and lives them in his inner being as well as in his outer life can awaken the same motives in others.  Thus a few individuals, leaders and mentors who are awakened to the higher motives can act as catalysts, slowly spreading the higher awakening to the entire organisation, through a process of inner contagion.  For our human life is a web of mutual interaction and interdependence.  What is achieved or realised in a single or a few centres tend to spread and multiply itself in other centres.

This brings us to another important aspect of motivation – reward system.  The spiritual motivation requires renunciation of the desire for reward.  Does this means the spiritual paradigm of motivation calls for abolition of all rewards?  But here also the governing principles are more or less the same as the ones we have discussed earlier.  According to Indian thought, Nature herself rewards each human being according to the nature and quality of his Karma, which means the effort and creative energy put in or released in action.  So let each individual, in whatever level he was in the motivation spectrum, get the reward he deserves, according to his performance or creative output or his contribution to the realization of organizational goals.  This is especially important for those who are in the lower ends of the spectrum.  The exceptionally talented, creative and productive individuals may have to be given a special consideration, with a reward system which is tailored to their specific needs, aspirations and expectation.  But those who are aspiring for the higher ethical or spiritual motivation have to rise beyond the rodent psychology of the Povlov’s rat and attain a higher level of human dignity.  For someone whose performance depends entirely on external rewards lacks self-worth and dignity.  He is a bond-slave of rewards and not a master of his actions or destiny.  So those individuals who want to realize the higher motivation have to make a sincere effort to rise to an inner state of consciousness in which their performance does not depend on rewards, and action proceeds not form a desire for reward, but from an inner inspiration and joy, which comes from dedication to a higher self-transcending cause.

As we have indicated earlier, ethical motivation is an important and indispensable stage to spiritual motivation.  Here, some of the emerging trends in business like Business Ethic and the present consensus on Social Responsibility of business can be a great help in awakening the ethical motive in people.  One of the advantages of these new values in business is that they represent ethical awakening in the corporate world emerging in the course of a natural evolution of business.  If they can be properly harnessed and guided to their highest potential with a clear and comprehensive ethical and spiritual vision, they can lead to a widespread awakening of the ethical motive in the corporate world and as a result, a quantum leap in its higher evolution.

However, social responsibility is only one aspect of ethics.  And intellectual discussions or debates on business ethics, though helpful, does not lead to a deep and lasting ethical awakening. For a deeper and more comprehensive ethical awakening, we have to create a culture which consciously encourages and promotes values like sharing, mutual helpfulness, kindness, generosity, courage, charity and more importantly provides a practical inner and outer discipline by which these values can be internalized in the thought, feeling, will and actions of people.  Here comes the importance of the Indian science of yoga.  In this ancient Indian science we can find all the knowledge and methods for a practical or applied value education.


The process of motivation may be conceived as an evolving spectrum which moves from the ego-driven to the ego-transcending motivation.  The ego-driven motivation has three stages.  First is the one driven by external motivators like money and power; second is the intrinsic motivation which feels an inherent joy in work; third is the ethical motivation which involves self-dedication to a social or moral cause.  The ethical motivation though less self-cantered can still be full of a subtle ego of the do-gooder.  Beyond the ego-driven, is the ego-transcending motivation which leads to motiveless action, driven not by any vital, mental or moral motives of the human ego, but by a universal spiritual force which transcends the individual and collective ego.


  1. Sri Aurobindo (1972), Collected Works, Vol.13, 16, 21, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry, India.
  2. Kieth Davis (1981), Human Behaviour at Work, Tata-McGraw Hill, New Delhi.
  3. Timothy Butler and James Waldrrop, Job Sculpting:  The Art of Retaining Your Best People, Harvard Business Review, Sept-Oct 1999.

Explore the Journal

An Integral Approach to management and human development based on the spiritual vision of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother with an emphasis on its application to various domains of knowledge and life.

Copyright © 2019 Integral Musings | Towards a Holistic Vision | Powered by Sri Aurobindo Society

Scroll to Top