, Why Disneyland isn’t the happiest place on earth for everyone…

Why Disneyland isn’t the happiest place on earth for everyone…

July 26th, 2016 Posted by Leadership Coaching

Recently I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a couple of days at “The happiest place on earth” – Disneyland – with my family.  Being interested in how effective organisations run I paid special attention to how Disney runs things there.  I was impressed at how everything ran to very strict procedures, safety being the highest priority of course, but I was left a little disappointed at the seeming poor engagement of the staff.  A lot of them, not all, acted like they were automatons literally just saying the words because that’s what they’re being paid to do and genuine interaction with customers wasn’t a requirement.  This stood out because a few were genuinely engaged and interacted at a level that showed real interest in making Disneyland truly the happiest place on earth.  It got me thinking about how do you motivate staff at the different levels across an organisation?

You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality. ~ Walt Disney

Let me start with the granddaddy of all motivational theories

When I first heard about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs I was about 16 years old. My older brother was studying accountancy and if ever you’ve studied any kind of business discipline you’ve no doubt come across that famous triangle with physiological safety at the bottom (Disneyland is big on physiological safety) and self-actualization at the top. Wifi never made it onto Maslow’s hierarchy but perhaps it should be included in an updated version. It wasn’t until a few years later that I was studying my own business papers when I came across the haloed triangle and I remember being so thrilled to see it come up in the final paper. I’d learned the structure of the triangle off by heart and I just scored an easy 20 marks! That was the extent of my understanding of Maslow’s hierarchy but now that I spend most of my free time studying why we do what we do (and how to apply psychological theories practically to our lives) I hate to admit it but Maslow’s hierarchy doesn’t entirely stack up. Countless research has been applied to this model and every one of them deem the hierarchy to be flawed. Maslow did nail the human needs that are important to each of us but his theory about needing to “dominate” one before being motivated to take on the next was flawed. So why does this hierarchy still remain so prevalent in business and organisational psychology. I don’t have the answer to that one but a lesser known psychologist has been proved to be closer to the mark when it comes to motivating teams at work.

Clayton Alderfer was a psychologist studying the motivation of staff at an engineering firm and he proposed a theory that in order to be motivated in the work environment people need three things, these are:

  • Existence
  • Relations
  • Growth


These three needs tie neatly back to Maslow’s needs but unlike Maslow, Alderfer recognised that all three needs can be in existence at the same time. Research has backed up Alderfer’s theory as motivational factors in the workplace but not as you might think. They appear to produce motivational results indirectly. Let’s look at them individually (in reverse) with examples of how you might be able to apply them practically with your own team.


If you know Maslow’s hierarchy you can see the parallel between this need and the need for love/connection. When it comes to motivation research has found that front line staff are motivated through relationships with their peers…not necessarily with their manager. If people are excluded from a peer group it impacts their self-esteem which of course will impact on their productivity. However, being accepted as a peer increases self-esteem and hence motivation. Being part of a group can also lead to groupthink where decisions are often made with a view to protecting the interests of the group whilst ignoring outside views or even logic. Views are often influenced by a stronger member of the group.

This can obviously work for an organisation or against it. To improve relations among staff there are lots of little things that can be done such as organising group activities. Many teams come together and do the quiz at a particular time in the day. Group morning teas, sports, and lunch time activities are all great ways of teams getting to know each other on a more personal level.
Here’s the takeaway, when people feel accepted they have increased self-esteem and when people have increased self-esteem they feel better about themselves and produce better outputs.

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. ~ Plato


You might say that this is a no-brainer. People are motivated by the opportunity to learn and grow but this is not always the case. Research has shown that those motivated by growth opportunities are those who are in more senior positions. Front-line staff aren’t motivated by growth unless…and here’s the gold…unless it is tied to an increase in self-esteem. If they see an opportunity to grow that will increase their status in the eyes of their colleagues they are more likely to take it on. We’ve already seen above that people with an increased self-esteem feel better about themselves and produce better results.

Look for ways to recognise your staff in unique ways. Some prefer public recognition and others prefer to receive praise in private. Having the employee of the month is a common approach to recognising staff in front of their peers. Different coloured uniforms is another tactic.

Here’s the takeaway, for frontline staff identify ways to increase their status (another of Maslow’s needs by the way) in the eyes of their peers. For more senior members of staff give them growth opportunities. There will come a time when remuneration won’t do it anymore; they need something more, they need the challenge.

Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning. ~ Benjamin Franklin


I’ve left Existence last because Existence doesn’t in and of itself motivate or engage staff. It is more aligned with Herzberg’s two-factor model which proposes that employees need both hygiene factors and motivational factors to be successful in their roles. Existence is aligned with Herzberg’s hygiene factors and these include the basics needed to perform a role. Without these an employee will easily become disengaged so they are the minimum that need to be in place to enable a healthy mind-set to grow by ensuring everyone is part of the team, everyone is recognised and everyone has an opportunity to grow.

The takeaways…ensure you’ve got the basics in place and monitor these to ensure they don’t deteriorate over time leading to disengagement.

Alderfer has given us an insight, in broad terms, of how to motivate your team but regardless of all the theories on motivation out there they alone can’t replace getting to know your team. I mean really getting to know your team. Everyone is an individual and needs to be treated like an individual.  What are their values, their interests? Once you know what drives them as people it’s easy to create opportunities to keep them motivated and become high performing team members.


If you’d like to know more about motivating your team and increasing productivity and creating a greater sense of well being in your team, or if you’d like to explore how coaching can help you become a better leader (of others or yourself!), or even if you’re just generally curious about what professional coaching can offer you, please contact us at any time for a free consultation.