Article: Creating Ripples in the Brain to motivate

Learning & Development

Creating Ripples in the Brain to motivate

Where mechanical implementation approach to enhance motivation might not be adequate to drive the desired results, tweaking the brain wiring may just do the job

It is apparent that employee performance is not always ‘input force - value of outcome' dependent


In high adrenaline state, do not expect the employees to be creative and come up with plans


Where mechanical implementation approach to enhance motivation might not be adequate to drive the desired results, tweaking the brain wiring may just do the job. 


Have you ever wondered why motivational techniques that work once, fail to work the second time? Why reprimanding sometimes yield results? Why after an extremely high moment, judgment making ability goes down?
We are all familiar with various principles of motivation. Each of these strikes a chord in the way we interact and understand ourselves and others. Many managers convert their understanding of these principles of motivation into a mechanical implementation akin to Newton’s laws of physics. Let’s see how.

Implementation Approach No. 1 - People don’t work unless you pay them incentives
Consider Newton’s First law - “An object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by a force.” Similarly, whether internal (intrinsic) or external (extrinsic), motivation is the force required to ensure that employees perform / work towards the desired outcome. While intrinsic forces include the need for achievement, passion, self esteem, extrinsic forces include the rewards offered for the outcome. These forces overcome inertia and maintain momentum and hence managers are on a constant look out for lures that can keep the momentum going. However, in behavior we see disconnects in this simplistic model of intrinsic / extrinsic motivation being related to outcomes as it doesn’t clearly explain how in the absence of a motivational environment and support, some people overcome all odds through sheer passion or drive for success.

Implementation Approach No. 2 - Bigger the challenge, bigger the reward
Newton’s second law – “Greater the mass (of the object being accelerated), greater the amount of force needed (to accelerate the object).” Another similarity – the larger the challenge, more the motivation required; the more the number of people who need to be motivated, the greater or more varied the force. However, some people give up on large challenges despite large enough motivational force (huge incentives / fast track promotions) while others appear to overcome large challenges easily and harness collective energies through what people call as ‘charisma’. Again, the mechanical approach fails to satisfy here.

Many managers fail to become leaders as they excessively use the crutches of the above two approaches. It is apparent that employee performance is not always ‘input force - value of outcome' dependent. If that were the case, then everyone will be driven by increments, praise, fear of failure, fear of boss, et al. And then, predictability of outcomes at least in the short term will be vastly enhanced. There will be less training required, and few ‘un’motivated employees in the system.
The answer to this puzzle may lie in better understanding of neuroscience and its applications and perhaps viewing motivation as an output of the internal wiring of our brain.

David Rock, founder of ‘Neuro-Leadership Thought’ has an interesting take on brain insights that can be applied in the real world. His research indicates that “for a person to remain in a state of motivation, regulating adrenaline and dopamine is important.” During adrenaline rush, a threat perception is built which leads to fight or a flight reaction; with dopamine rush, an elated state is reached which derails focus.

Let us understand these two concepts via an illustration:
Naresh, Product Head of an organization asks his team to brain storm on the marketing strategy of a new product. As the team gathers for a brain storming session, Naresh starts the session by asking “Have you all thought about the marketing plan?” On observing that most of the team members have not, Naresh immediately responds “I thought as much. Most of the time I end up with all the work.” He then asks team members who have thought through to share their ideas. As idea sharing begins, Naresh either grins at an idea or makes calls or rebuffs the idea. Team members, who are watching Naresh, pick up these signals – signals which are subtle, yet sufficient to push up adrenaline levels of some of them. When adrenaline levels are high, focus is so great that subtle hints are easily recognizable and perceived as a threat to ideas and thought processes. A leader wanting to increase his / her team’s focus should emphasize on adrenaline increase. Think of a military team… An Army General may not want thinking reaction at the time of an attack. He wants his troops to merely follow orders. It’s best if troops at that juncture have higher adrenaline release.

Dopamine rush, on the other hand, leads to higher sense of risk taking ability. Consider a gambler who loses his sense of judgment due to excessive dopamine release in his brain and hence is not able to maintain focus and pick the subtle hints from the environment. This often prevents him from quitting when the going is good and believing that he is on a roll and end up losing significantly. We see this at work too when some people are carried away by the heady sense of success and miss all signals and bring businesses to a resounding fall. Perhaps the global economic crisis was caused in some way by bankers high on dopamine fuelled by profits that were not created responsibly.

In high adrenaline state, do not expect the employees to be creative and come up with plans. And in high dopamine state, judgment making capability of the individual becomes low. A leader therefore must be certain of the outcome required. Does the leader want to increase the workforce’s alertness and focus? If so, then adrenaline needs to be surged. Or does the leader want to increase their risk taking appetite? Enhancing level of Dopamine is the cue.

Pause and think of people and situations in the past where you may have used mechanical implementation approach. Now, reflect on what you could have done differently using brain wiring. How ready are you now to motivate your team using this brain wiring? With focus on the end result, evaluate your situations in hand and use appropriate tools to create ripples in the brain.

Ritu Agast is Head – Content Development Team, Fullerton India Credit Company Ltd.
K S Kumar is Vice President - HR, Castrol India Ltd.


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Topics: Learning & Development

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