Get More Productivity From Employees

Inspire employees to work harder, increase productivity and stay on board longer with these helpful strategies.

If you do a Google search for “motivating employees,” first grab a cup of coffee; you’re going to need some caffeine to even scratch the surface of the 26 million hits that show up.

From bonuses and time off to approving naps and casual dress to allowing pets at work and holding after-hours happy-hour bull sessions, there’s no end to the grab-bag of strategies employers use to get people to work harder and more efficiently and engender their loyalty. But researchers are slowly making motivation less of a mystery and more of a science. Using tools such as magnetic resonance imaging, researchers have determined that motivating people requires managers to quite literally get inside their employees’ heads.

This is no small discovery. Motivated employees are critical to organizational success because they’re more engaged, productive and innovative, and can handle adversity and change better than their unmotivated counterparts. Moreover, companies with highly motivated employees have less turnover and higher levels of customer satisfaction, says Kimberly Schaufenbuel, program director of executive development at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School and the author of a white paper entitled, Motivation On the Brain: Applying the Neuroscience of Motivation In the Workplace.

To understand what scientists have discovered in our brainpans, a quick science lesson is in order. It all starts with dopamine, a chemical compound in the brain that serves as a neurotransmitter, which (as its name implies) transmits nerve impulses throughout the brain. Dopamine has long been associated with happiness, but research shows it’s more complicated than that; it can also provoke a flight-or-fight mode in the amygdala region of the brain, hijacking cognitive functions along the way.

Scientists now believe that motivation occurs when dopamine is released and reaches an area of the brain called the nucleas acumens. This part of the brain recognizes that something good or bad is about to happen and creates the impulse to do something about it — either minimize a threat or maximize a reward.

In short, dopamine is the catalyst that creates the urge to either avoid a threat or head full-throttle for a reward.

In one study conducted at Vanderbilt University, researchers measured the dopamine levels of so-called “go-getters” versus slackers. In highly motivated go-getter brains, researchers found higher concentrations of dopamine in the areas of the brain associated with reward. The slackers’ brains contained more dopamine in areas of the brain associated with emotion and risk perception.

OK, interesting stuff — but does that mean that some of us are genetically predisposed to low dopamine and doomed to careers as slackers, always looking to take the easy way out? Not at all. Researchers believe that employers can create a rewarding environment that boosts dopamine production and helps rewire our brains for motivation.

To understand how to fashion such environments, consider Harvard University professors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, whose research revealed four fundamental patterns of human behavior: the drive to acquire, the drive to defend, the drive to bond and the drive to learn. Companies and organizations can better motivate employees by designing systems and policies that work in concert with each of these four drivers, Schaufenbuel says.

For example, companies can fulfill the drive to acquire by establishing clearly defined links between performance and rewards. “Employers looking to fulfill this drive for employees, and thereby spur motivation, should examine how well they differentiate between good and average performance, and how well they identify and reward high performers versus average and low performers,” she writes.

To diminish the drive to defend, which occurs when people feel threatened, companies must act fairly and transparently in matters such as work assignments and compensation. To fulfill the drive to bond — the brain’s desire to be social — companies must emphasize and reward collaboration, and provide consistent, regular feedback so employees always know where they stand and comprehend how it affects others in a positive way, she notes.

Another motivational model, developed by researcher David Rock, the director of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work, is called SCARF, which stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Rock posits that these five social needs are hardwired into our brains and can be nurtured by creating a workplace environment that sates the brain’s need for these five items. The result: a flood of dopamine that jump-starts the reward/motivation motor.

Here’s how those five social needs shake out:

  • Status. This refers to an employee’s need for respect and esteem. Cater to this need by couching performance reviews and feedback as opportunities for growth and improvement, not punishment for bad performance. “Give feedback based on the situation, not on the person — don’t make it personal,” Schaufenbuel cautions.
  • Certainty. Without this element, our brains shift into survival mode, which obscures decision-making abilities. “Employees generally don’t like change, so keep them in the loop … make their brains feel as involved as possible,” she notes.
  • Autonomy. Independence makes employees feel like they’re more in control, which reduces stress. “The majority of us don’t like to be micromanaged,” Schaufenbuel says. “Independence makes us feel trusted.”
  • Relatedness. When employees work in a friendly environment as opposed to acrimonious, the brain disables its threat responses. The upshot: Foster a culture that celebrates teamwork and camaraderie. “Create an environment where employees see you as on their side,” she advises.
  • Fairness. Because the brain’s main goal is survival, unfairness — things like different treatment for different employees, broken promises, disparate compensation levels and so forth — triggers a threat response. Fair and equitable treatment, on the other hand, provokes a reward response, which boosts motivation. “In fact, research shows that employees prize fairness more than money,” she notes.

Overall, Rock’s SCARF framework upends conventional notions about what motivates employees. Instead of focusing on paying people more or offering more perks, it’s far more beneficial to create a social system that fulfills Rock’s five basic needs and, in effect, rewards employees’ brains and keeps them motivated.

Or think of it this way: If employees always feel threatened, their amygdala takes over to protect them, which reduces their ability to think rationally, solve problems effectively, make good decisions and collaborate with colleagues, Schaufenbuel explains.

“Understanding the drivers for a reward response enables leaders to motivate others more effectively,” she points out. “For example, they can satisfy the need for autonomy through flexible work hours, status through skill development/training and relatedness via networking opportunities. This reduces the over-reliance on external rewards and scarce resources such as money.

“This model can be applied and practiced in any situation where people collaborate, including work environments and social gatherings,” she continues. “By thinking about the five domains before interacting with an individual or group, you ensure that you’re focusing on reward responses, and motivation increases.”


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