In the aftermath of the economic downturn, we’ve seen a groundswell of attention being paid to “motivating people to be at their best.” In our conversations with leaders, we hear them trying to counteract the reality of fatigue in a world where organizations have scaled back on their workforce due to layoffs or attrition, and have yet to invest in rehires. The impact on current employees is real: more responsibility, expanded scope of accountability, with smaller teams to actually implement.
Research on motivation and the role of the brain points to many important insights for leaders and managers trying to respond proactively to burn out on their teams. Most importantly, leaders must understand that all motivation—whether at work or at play—shares the same neural pathway. Tapping into that pathway is the job of the leader—
and understanding the brain can help. Here’s more about the brain and motivating your team as written by Teleos founder, Annie McKee, in her bestselling book, Primal Leadership:
In a technical sense, our guiding values are represented in the brain as a hierarchy of emotionally toned thoughts, with what we “like” and find compelling at the top, and what we loathe at the bottom. The strength and direction of those emotions determine whether a goal appeals to us or repels us. If the thought of helping disadvantaged children, for example, or of working with people at the top of their game, thrills us, it will be highly motivating.
All of this occurs in the brain’s prefrontal areas—the seat of attention and hence of self-awareness—which monitor feelings about preferences. Circuits in that part of the brain, then, harbor our positive feelings, quietly bringing them to mind over and over as we struggle toward a goal. Pleasant thoughts thereby operate as a sort of cheering section, urging us on over the long haul. From a neurological standpoint, what keeps us moving toward our goals in life comes down to the mind’s ability to remind us of how satisfied we’ll feel when we accomplish those things—a capacity residing in the circuitry between the amygdala and the left prefrontal lobe.
No matter what drives our passion to do our best work—whether it be the pure excitement it brings, the satisfaction of learning to do something better, or the joy of collaborating with highly talented colleagues (or simply the money we earn)—all the motivators share a common neural pathway. Passion for work, at the brain level, means that circuits linked to the left prefrontal cortex pump out a fairly steady stream of good feelings as we do our work.
At the same time, left prefrontal-based brain circuits perform another motivational favor: They quiet the feelings of frustration or worry that might discourage us from continuing. This means we can take in stride the inevitable setbacks, frustrations, and failures that any worthy goal brings us. We can see the hidden opportunity or the useful lesson in a reversal and keep going.
How well those prefrontal circuits prime motivating feelings and control the discouraging ones makes the difference between a pessimist, who dwells too much on what’s wrong and so loses hope, and an optimist, who keeps going despite difficulties by holding in mind the satisfaction to come when the goal is met.
How does all of this apply to leaders and organizations? Motivation on the job too often is taken for granted; we assume people care about what they do. But the truth is more nuanced: Wherever people gravitate within their work role indicates where their real pleasure lies—and that pleasure is itself motivating. Although traditional incentives such as bonuses or recognition can prod people to better performance, no external motivators can get people to perform at their absolute best.
The implications for leaders and managers are clear: get to know your people. Understand what in their work is most “naturally” exciting to them, because that is where they will get the energy (through the pumping of critical brain chemicals) and motivation to do the full range of their work. By orchestrating a means for them to do the work they like most—which feeds them on a primal and neurological basis—you can leverage their energy and excitement into the rest of their work. By making a concerted effort to give your people more work that motivates them, you will be well on your way to counteracting the damaging effects of burnout, and moving your team and organization toward resilience and long-term sustainability.
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