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When it comes to the things that leaders should do every day, there is one very daunting task that they must do and that is to motivate their teams all the time. It’s not something that they can do as and when; they must focus on it daily! What makes it more difficult is that we don’t know what truly motivates a person and what inspires them to do something and have the stamina to stay with it when the going gets tough. Although we’ve all tried it, and failed, it’s not a good idea to apply a cookie cutter method that would automatically work for all employees. Human beings are wonderfully complex and motivating people should be done by focusing individually on each person.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs or McGregor’s X and Y Theory are two popular motivation models that explain what motivates people and the reasons for it. However, they do have their limitations and in the last few years a more extensive motivation theory, called Spiral Dynamics, has emerged.

The key difference between Spiral Dynamics and the previous motivation theories is that humans continuously change and evolve as they age. As we become older, and hopefully wiser, we alter our thoughts, actions, decisions, responses and ways we solve problems. Think about it: Are your thoughts and viewpoints the same as when you were in your early twenties? Probably not! Our values and motivation has changed and evolved depending on our social, biological and psychological environment. Spiral Dynamics is a powerful leadership tool that can assist us to understand how people’s values affect and impact on the decisions they make; which means what motivates them.

What is Spiral Dynamics?

Spiral Dynamics is a theory of human development that assists us to understand how and why people do what they do. It has its original roots in Human Existence which Dr. Graves researched in the 1930s. The theory explores why people’s actions and motivation are different, and what lies behind them saying one thing and doing something else. One of Graves’ students, Beck, continued exploring this philosophy and enriched it by making it a practical workplace application. The underlying idea is that our values drive our behaviour and motivation. Our values impact on our beliefs, our feelings, our motivation, our preferences, our ideas, and our ethics. Values are the secret magical key that unlocks how a person functions.

How does Spiral Dynamics work?

The theory is represented by a colour-coded spiral vortex where each spiral colour represents a person’s deeply held values. As people grow, develop and mature, the value memes expand from an individualist “I” focus to a more group and social “WE” focus. A person develops and evolves from one spiral to another and can also spiral back downwards. Skipping a spiral is not possible as one cannot skip a development stage. Now, to complicate the matter, a person will often be transitioning between a spiral which means that not all areas of their life will instantaneously be in the same spiral colour.

The list below summarises the colour codes, spiral vortexes, and relevant value memes. As mankind evolves, more spirals will appear in time, but for now we have eight defined spirals.

  • Turquoise – Holistic

o   Combining mind and spirit for a wholesome and complete life experience

  • Yellow – Integral

o   Seeking change that results in sustainable methods of surviving and thriving

  • Green – Egalitarian

o   Demanding human rights and developing a society

  • Orange – Prosperity

o   Taking advantage of opportunities that bring about prosperity and betterment

  • Blue – Righteousness

o   Implementing rules, structures and procedures

  • Red – Freedom

o   Demanding what you want when you want it

  • Purple – Safety

o   Establishing bonds with family

  • Beige – Survival

o   Basic survival needs and comfort

Spiral Dynamics as a motivational leadership tool

Understanding our own Spiral Dynamics colour as well as that of a team member impacts on the way we lead and manage people in the workplace. As a leader, we can communicate directly with the person based on their value system, thereby being more empowering when it comes to people development, motivation, effective communication, reward and acknowledgement. Furthermore, it reduces conflict, builds a stronger connective culture, and lastly provides a way to create effective positive change.

Spiral dynamics assists leaders to understand

  • What people are thinking
  • Why people make the decisions they do
  • Why people react the way they do
  • What different motivations work
  • What impacts people to change

What makes Spiral Dynamics a powerful tool is that no level is better or worse than another one. People are purely at different development levels in their environment and life conditions which impacts on their level of thinking and decision making. The use of colour also brings in a tone of neutrality. Colours don’t make us that reactive, nor do we feel psychologically “boxed”.

In summary, Spiral Dynamics is a useful approach to assist leaders to understand their team better and to foster positive working relationships.