6 Ways to Motivate Workers by Getting Inside Their Heads

by Jan Fletcher on December 5, 2011
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Neuroscience has good news for small businesses: Employees care more about “interesting work” than financial compensation, says David Rock, co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work. Rock’s latest research paper, published in 2008, and still relevant for managers, argues that motivation is hard-wired into our brains, and he sorts those inner drives into five categories: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

Here are six ways to think about applying the physiology of motivation in the office.

  1. Beware of micromanagement. The brain is hardwired for autonomy. People want to feel in control. When employees feel that they cannot control their workplace stress, turnover increases. People will even leave a job for one that pays less if their sense of autonomy is lost, Rock notes, whereas an increase in autonomy can provide a motivating factor that’s equal to or greater than pay.
  2. Pattern recognition enables efficient work. That same hard-wired ability that allows a worker to see one step ahead also creates a vulnerability or uncertainty, Rock says. The brain craves predictability, so it can work more efficiently. The problem is that even a small amount of uncertainty generates an “error” response. This is good when your brain is telling you to clean up the coffee you just spilled. This is bad when it comes to larger uncertainties, such as job security. Fretting can increase the error rate in business, Rock concludes.
  3. Real or perceived threats hurt productivity. Threats of any kind pose a “surprisingly easy” pitfall for managers, Rock says. Anything from a minor tweak in a person’s job description to an innocent, offhand remark about how a person handled a task can reduce a worker’s productivity. Those who perceive a loss in status experience decreased levels of oxygen and glucose in their brains, Rock explains. “It can be surprisingly easy to accidentally threaten someone’s sense of status,” he says, such as “if directions or advice are rendered in a way that embarrasses or demeans a worker.”
  4. Perceived unfairness creates a threatening environment. Researchers found that those who think they have been victimized by an unfair exchange experienced stimulation of the insular cortex, “a part of the brain involved in intense emotions such as disgust.” According to Rock’s paper, researchers discovered in 2007 that “people who perceive others as unfair don’t feel empathy for their pain, and in some instances, will feel rewarded when unfair others are punished.”
  5. The brain subliminally sorts people into inside and outside circles. This sorting process can be detrimental to team building and create a flourishing environment for social “silos” that cut off collaboration. Rock’s paper explains different brain circuits are used in thinking about friends and foes, and “when treating someone as a competitor, the capacity to empathize drops significantly.”
  6. Internal factors are the best motivators. Dispense with the “carrot-and-stick” approach. “People are motivated by intrinsic factors, such as interesting work, challenge, and increasing responsibility,” writes Ray Williams in a blog post for Psychology Today titledHow to Motivate Employees: What Managers Need to Know.” Focus on internal desires rather than external motivators.
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