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The art of (neuro)motivation

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Effectively engaging employees makes the difference between success and failure.

Unmotivated employee (Credit: NBC)
Unmotivated employee (Credit: NBC)


Understanding human motivation in the context of an organization has been an important topic in the organizational and leadership sciences in the XXI century. Several well-established theories on motivation exist, including the Needs, Expectancy and Equity theories. Two authors, Dr. Dean Mobbs and Walter McFarland, in their article The Neuroscience of Motivation suggest that the application of neuroscience and evolving research on human brain in the context of these existing theories can result in higher level of employee engagement and motivation.

Dr. Mobbs and McFarland’s findings are particularly valuable for leaders of early-stage companies. For startups capital is precious, resources are scarce and employees often pushed to their limits without being immediately and/or adequately rewarded. Even those employees who thrive in the environment of uncertainty and constant challenge can find themselves overwhelmed by their biological responses. The pendulum of uncertainty swings wide for entrepreneurs and often amplifies consequence of any mistakes. Anything that can enhance entrepreneurs’ understanding of the behavior of their most important assets –employees –and their motivations is an attractive proposition.

Mobbs and McFarland suggest that most motivators are modulated by the brain’s dopamine or wanting system. Additionally, our brain’s responses oscillate between the ‘aversive’ system (e.g., disengagement, frustration) and the ‘motivational’ system (e.g., enthusiasm, collaboration). Below I evoke a few observations suggested by the authors and I extend these findings to a startup environment’s best practices.

  • People’s aversive response overshadows the ‘motivational’ system: Avoid as a priority the de-motivational aspects of triggering the brain’s aversive system. Second, focus motivational strategy on the brain’s wanting system that includes both extrinsic and intrinsic factors. Best practice: Get to know your employees. Observe and ask them what motivates them and what is a ‘deal breaker’. Write down key motivators for each employee and reference when making decisions on rewards. Listen to employees’ feedback and look for signs of the ‘aversive’ response.
  • People compare themselves to others: People will act as better collaborators and will be more motivated to help others when they are satisfied with their own circumstances. Conversely, when the brain perceives inequity it is profoundly demotivated, regardless of the absolute value of a reward.Dissatisfaction based on inequity is a powerful way of evoking the aversive system through cynical emotions like envy and jealousy. Best practice: Rewards that elicit perception of inequality among some employees can demotivate and are a waste of resources. Set clear rules for rewarding employees ahead of time (i.e., milestones and timeline). Be transparent with the rationale for rewarding employees.
  • People expectations are a delicate balance: People have certain expectations that motivate them and when blocked can result in the engagement of the aversive system, which can be exhibited in frustration and work dissatisfaction. Best practice: Job goals and aspirations should be clear between the individual and the organization. Minimize ambiguity by setting goals and expectations at the time of hiring. Schedule at least quarterly, and more often if needed, check ins.

The implications of triggering the aversive systems are profound. The brain loses productivity, shuts down, and motivation is hard to regain. For a startup in particular, engaging employees makes the difference between success and failure.

If everything else fails: At the basic level of primary rewards are physiological needs like food. Snacks make people happy.


Motivated employees


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