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Thought Leadership


A Leader’s Framework on Employee Motivation

Identifying the Patriots and Mercenaries

At one point in my leadership career, I had an employee ask me if I “lived to work” or “worked to live”. As I pondered the question, he offered his own answer which clearly indicated his preference for the “work to live” option stating that while he certainly didn’t mind his work, his real joy came from his after-work activities.  His question prompted me to consider employee motivation and the different ways people are driven to work. 

employee motivation image

After some observation and consideration, I came to the conclusion that in general; people tend to approach their work either as “mercenaries” (work to live) or as “patriots” (live to work).  I believe these two different perspectives represent preferences rather than absolutes.  In other words, any individual can look at his or her work from either perspective depending on the situation and circumstance but they will have a natural tendency or usual preference for one perspective over the other.  Knowing this preference as a leader can be invaluable. 

One of the unfortunate things about my choice of terms in describing this motivational dichotomy is that the terms may evoke some bias – often patriots are seen as “better” than mercenaries. If we can leave that bias behind however, it becomes apparent that both perspectives are valuable and indeed, are prevalent throughout most organizations.  Keep in mind that this discussion is about employee motivation and has nothing to do with responsibility, professionalism or the ability of an individual to execute his or her work. So that said, let’s look at some ways leaders can use this framework. 

Which role is better for employee motivation?

People with a mercenary mindset tend to be more easily managed than led.  Given that compensation is a large part of employee motivation for mercenaries, they often focus on knowing the rules of the game and what it is they need to do to “win”.  The fundamental basis of the Management by Objectives (MBO) approach aligns very well with the mercenary mindset because how to win is set out in very clear terms. Most organizational bonus programs are configured with this in mind.  The benefits of having people with a mercenary mindset in your organization are plentiful. People with a mercenary mindset tend to be very focused, determined and have a huge drive to succeed.  Their “means to an end” mindset may also enable them to take on roles, tasks or activities that others would find boring, regimented or even require physical discomfort.  The bottom line is that if you have a role or a task that needs doing within established processes or guidelines and with a minimum of fuss or debate, look for your employees that “work to live”.  They will engage immediately and meet your expectations quickly and efficiently. 

Patriots on the other hand tend to respond better to leadership than to management.  Patriots always want to know the cause, purpose or reason for their contribution.  They want to belong to and feel pride in their organization.  Organizational “Vision and Mission” statements are designed with the patriot employee in mind. They are always asking “why” or “how does this align with where we are going?”  As a result of this “need to know”, patriots may not engage as quickly as mercenaries but they do tend to be more loyal once engaged.  In addition, they may not demonstrate the same focus or short term drive as their mercenary counterparts.  What they do bring however is a longer term, more strategic mindset.  They can also be more creative in coming up with different and innovative ways of executing the work.  While the mercenary is already half way through shoveling the driveway, the patriot has arranged to borrow the neighbor’s snow blower.  Patriots believe in what they are doing and tend not to worry about compensation as long as it is “fair” and in accordance with the organization’s stated values.  I also believe that some sort of non-compensation based recognition is important to patriots, for example “employee of the month recognition”. 

As you build your team of direct reports, focus on achieving the optimum mixture of patriots and mercenaries for your particular organization


A number of people I have spoken to about this concept have shared their belief that mercenaries may be more prevalent in the ranks of hourly paid staff (with access to overtime, double time etc.) and that executives are more likely to have the patriot mindset.  My observations indicate otherwise.  Based on the manner in which many compensation programs are administered, i.e. largely on objective results, I believe that the executive ranks are attracting more and more individuals with the mercenary mindset.  Again, this is neither a good nor a bad thing.  Investors want predictable results and mercenaries excel at providing them.  The value that patriots bring to the executive ranks is equally important.  They tend to be the “long term investors” and the strategists. Their focus is on implementing programs and approaches that will hopefully yield future and long term benefits to the organization.  In addition, because of their “loyalty” to the organization, they also tend to provide greater organizational stability. 

As a leader, you can start to pay attention to how your employees behave and then move towards recognizing them and motivating them using their preferred “language”.  In some cases, it might be a bonus cheque while in others, celebrating their contribution may be the key to unlocking their true performance potential. Either way, understanding employee motivation and learning to adjust your approach accordingly is the key.  

As you build your team of direct reports, focus on achieving the optimum mixture of patriots and mercenaries for your particular organization.  This will not only help you achieve your short-term objectives but will also help to sustain that superior level of performance over the long term. 

Need some help understanding employee motivation and how to understand it better within the sphere of your organizational culture? We can help with that! Maslow Centre for Executive Leadership is the only organization in North America offering a dedicated Culture Coaching program with a deeper look into human dynamics. We also offer custom programs and services. Visit us here to find out more.