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.
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 in my book, Primal Leadership:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Read more about Annie McKee and her HRPS Global Conference session, Revitalizing Leadership: It Starts with You.