Mapping the Motivational Landscape the formation of the safety space

In the inspirational story 'The Elephant and The Rope,'[1] a man, walking by a bunch of massive elephants that are kept outside of a circus with no cages or fences, suddenly learns that the only thing that keeps these enormous creatures from running away is a tiny rope connecting their legs to a wooden post. The man asks the trainer why these animals make no attempt to run away. 'Well,' says the trainer, 'when they are very young and much smaller, we use the same size of rope to tie them and, at that age, it's enough to hold them. As they grow up, they are conditioned to believe they cannot break away. They believe the rope can still hold them, so they never try to break free.'

The creatures are disempowered to break the rope, oblivious to the reality outside the circle and de-motivated to explore the space beyond it. Quite similarly, our lives are conditioned through numerous interactions with the direct environment. From early childhood we rely on others in order to survive and achieve whatever is necessary for living.

To deliver on the needs of safety and love, parents craft physical and emotional environments in their households, in schools and communities, protecting children from the perceived dangers of the outside world, and directing their upbringing, making choices on their behalf, based on what they think is the best for their offspring. This process creates a safety space—an artificial world protected from the volatility and dangers of the real world. An artificial environment intended to be fully controllable by the creator.

Unfortunately, while the physical dimension of the space is controllable, the emotional dimension is not. If left to their own devices, children push to the boundaries of accepted behaviors, causing trouble and understandable concerns about their safety and the safety of others. A typical response in this case is the conditioning through culture and behavioral norms, which sometimes takes unpleasant forms, punishment, or reasoning through guilt. Parents enforce expected behavioral patterns by translating their own cultural norms and the cultural heritage of previous generations, molding the patterns of meaning of their offspring through 'if-then' sets of conditions. With safety, love and predictability comes an enormous tradeoff-oblivion to the real world, lack of desire and the inability to operate outside the boundaries of the safety space. This process inhibits intrinsic motivation and leads to the development of a duality in behaviors, as individuals try to match self-interest with external expectations.

Safety space is defined as a space comprising a physical and emotional environment created by an individual or a group of individuals, that we would call principal, in order to protect, direct, control, or make use of another group of individuals that we will call agents or dependents. In this space the principal takes responsibility over the safety of the environment, making it fully controllable

Map of a principal-dependent (agent) relationship in a safety space

Figure 9.2 Map of a principal-dependent (agent) relationship in a safety space

and predictable, while agents accept their roles, norms of engagement and expected behaviors, developing persistent patterns of meaning, that assume the safety space to be an accurate representation of the reality.

Historically, the safety space (Figure 9.2) is the mode of operation of traditional organizations. The nature of the agent-principal relationship assumes that the principal takes responsibility for the agents, and guarantees basic employment standards. The principal operates outside of the safety space, and maintains the conditions for the employees to operate safely inside, through extrinsic motivation, keeping them somewhat engaged but disempowered, and oblivious to their full potential. In a sense, agents trade safety for the ability to explore and grow beyond their perceived limits.

  • [1] Unknown author, 'Short Story: The Elephant and The Rope.' The Unbounded Spirit. Available at: (accessed: November21, 2014).
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