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A neuroscientific perspective on motivating others

Understanding leadership and leadership skills from a brain-based perspective has become popular in the last couple of years. A recognized actor in this field is the NeuroLeadership Institute, director Dr David Rock. According to its website, the Institute provides brain-based, process-focused, and outcome-driven methodologies and frameworks that help individuals and organizations facilitate positive change and lead more effectively. This is an example of ‘applied neuroscience’.

A key-concept within this research is ‘relatedness’ - one of five primary categories of social pleasure (the others being status, certainty, autonomy and fairness). Relatedness can be expressed as feelings of trust, connection and belonging. Dr Rock’s research shows that when individuals experience “relatedness failures” they suffer; and when they get to work together with other people they often feel motivated.

Since the modern workforce is largely organized into teams, one would expect most workers to have plenty of opportunities to experience belonging and to feel motivated. But this is not the case. We may work in teams but, in fact, we rarely work together. According to the NeuroLeadership Institute, most teams share common goals and excel in meetings, but the team does not actually work as a group. Instead, meetings are used to launch the work, to decide on deliveries and to allocate tasks. Employees then carry out those tasks alone.

While acknowledging the importance of togetherness, Carr and Walton, psychologists at Stanford University http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/september/motivation-walton-carr-091514.html take a slightly different stance on the issue. They support the idea that people are motivated by working with others, or - to be more precise - they show that what counts is experiencing the feeling of working together. One way to arouse that feeling is simply to use the word ‘together’. The word is such a powerful social cue to the brain that its use is enough to awaken positive effects. It seems to serve as a relatedness reward, signaling that you belong, that you are connected, and that you are working with people you can trust toward a shared goal. Hence, executives and managers are encouraged to use the word more frequently.

This discussion reminds me of an interview I did many years ago with a very experienced CEO. She strongly opposed the idea that it was part of her job to motivate employees. Her job, she said, was to ensure that employees had challenging tasks and the right resources to get the job done. Motivation, she contended, comes from within: employees are responsible for motivating themselves. If you are not motivated to do the work, she said, you should probably look for a job elsewhere. To her, this was a matter of taking responsibility as a co-worker and an adult.

So where does this leave us? A question that comes to mind is this: what are the potential risks and consequences for managers if they treat co-workers as (emotional) brains rather than as responsible adults?

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