The Manager as Motivator - Ernest Dichter's "Top Man" Training Seminars

Friday, February 19, 2016

Ernest Dichter is most well-known as a pioneer of motivational marketing research, an approach to marketing that emphasized the unconscious nature of consumer motives. What he is less known for, however, is his work on management training—material that I explored in a week at the Hagley archives, funded by a research grant, and forming part of my dissertation research.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Dichter’s institute developed the “Top Man seminars,” which applied principles initially developed in consumer research to motivate the executives of corporate America. Like the marketing researcher who needs to understand consumer motives to persuade them to buy goods, the astute manager needed to understand subordinates’ motives to encourage them to work—which required that they became aware of their own unconscious motives. As the Top Man seminar brochure proclaimed, it is “subconscious factors really govern our personal and professional lives.”

This five-day workshop included a variety of techniques to elicit and understand these subconscious motives: a psychological mirror; ‘why not’ exercises; decision tree; psychological calendar; and a mood calendar. The seminar started with taking inventory of the self, one’s own thoughts and feelings, in order to understand how to manage one’s environment and relations with others.

Participants in the seminar were enjoined to record “psychological inputs”— mood, worries, problems, what happened in their personal and professional lives—and “psychological outputs”—what actions were to be taken. Each month, one was to take stock of one’s failures and successes, in order to analyze reasons for mistakes and identify areas for personal growth.

As Dichter wrote in his Top Man seminar notes, the goal was not to make people into a different kind of person, or to make them act out an unfamiliar role, but to encourage them to be themselves—“but better.” One had to become aware of one’s existing traits and capacities, to accept traits that were unchangeable, in order to work through and purge the bad habits that were within the power to change. The seminars themselves lasted only a few days, but they were supposed to jump-start a process of constant training that would result in a motivated self.

These management training seminars suggested that the job of managing other people was at heart a job of motivating others. In fact, the institute published a series of pamphlets, called Manager/Motivator, which suggested exactly this definition of management. We are driven to action, Dichter suggested, by the “motivational differential”—the difference between one’s present state in life, and one’s desired state. Motivation was thus understood to be a psychological drive that impelled people to act. A top manager was a person who consistently set high goals, and thus maintained a high motivational differential.

The vast archival holdings in the Dichter collection range from brochures to Dichter’s personal notes to responses from seminar participants. This collection offers a rich, largely untapped resource to understanding the history of management, and of motivation, in twentieth century America.

Kira Lussier is a graduate student at the University of Toronto, Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. She can be contacted at or through