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Neuroscience Insights To Motivate Employees

by Harwant Khush, Ph.D., Research Consultant, Tero International

"Genetics is crude, but neuroscience goes directly to work on the brain, and the mind follows"-Leon Kass

Effectively motivating employees has always been one of management's most challenging and difficult tasks. Entrepreneurs and administrators always try to implement effective techniques, methods, procedures to persuade, inspire, and engage employees. Employers provide generous rewards, money, perks, and benefits to enhance employees' productivity.

Nevertheless, data shows that some of these techniques do not deliver results as expected. Gallup's recent report on the State of the American Workforce concluded: "the majority of U.S. workers (70%) are not reaching their full potential-a problem that has significant implications for the economy and the individual performance of American companies." The pertinent question is to find out why employees feel disengaged in spite of their employers' implementation of the well-formulated methods based on theories of motivation.

Some of the highly popular theories of the previous centuries often applied by employers were: Reinforcement theory of B.F. Skinner, Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, ERG theory of Alderfer, Two-Factor Theory of Herzberg, Acquired Needs theory of Douglas McClelland and multiple Goal-Setting theories.

Nevertheless, contemporary researchers point out that these theories did not deliver results as expected because of their many limitations. Scientists state that these theories could not be validated and substantiated through objective data. Theories highly emphasized extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation. Research also shows that when taken for granted, external rewards such as money and perks can quickly become demotivators. Maslow's theory of The Hierarchy of Needs does not seem to match the needs of workers of this century. Workers do not like to satisfy their needs in any particular order. For example, some workers may want to skip over some of the "basic" or "social needs" and go directly for "status or recognition needs." They may also like to satisfy most of their needs at the same time instead of one after the other. Present-day social scientists realize that it is time to take a different approach to employee motivation.

In the 21st century, views, theories, and concepts of motivation are going through a paradigm shift. David Rock, the co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, states, "in a world of increasing interconnectedness and rapid change, there is a growing need to improve the way people work together. Understanding the true drivers of human social behavior is becoming ever more urgent in this environment." The findings of Neurosciences provide a great deal in understanding the true drivers of human social behavior.

Neuroscience and Motivation

Neurosciences show how the nervous system develops and what it does. One of the branches of neurosciences is behavioral neuroscience- "the study of the biological bases of behavior," it shows how the brain affects behavior (Neuroscience).

David Brooks, in the New York Times, writes, "this has been a golden age for brain research. We now have amazing brain scans that show which networks in the brain ramp up during different activities." The same views are also expressed in the Executive Development Blog on the Neuroscience of Motivation by the University of North Carolina:

"With the flourishing field of neuroscience- the study of how brain works-great advances have been made in understanding the science of motivation in the brain. These new insights can inform HR and talent development professionals about how to apply it to improve employee motivation in the workplace."

Scientists are finding out that biology affects behavior. The center of motivation is in the brain or in the head. Harvard Professors Nohria et al. state that certain chemical changes happen in brain that can be objectively observed and verified (Motivation): According to these scientists:

"motivation is created in the brain when dopamine is released and makes its way to an area of the brain called the "nucleas accumbens." which triggers feedback that predicts whether something good or bad is about to happen. That prediction prompts the motivation to respond by...maximizing a predicted reward."

According to these experts, it is the level of dopamine and its location in the brain that determines differences in motivation. Researchers state that "go-getters" who are willing to work hard for rewards have a higher level of dopamine in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. While the dopamine levels were in the anterior insula part of the brain of "slackers" or those who were less willing to work (Dopamine Impacts willingness to work). Thus, the dopamine and its concentration in brain is a significant predictor of motivation.

These findings show that dopamine can be enhanced in workers' brains to increase motivation. From the knowledge and findings of behavioral neuroscience, two significant theories, The Four Drive Theory and the SCARF Model, have emerged.

The Four Drive Theory

In 2002, Drs. Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria of the Harvard Business School published a book: Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices. The pertinent findings are highlighted in their article on Employee Motivation: A Powerful New Model. According to these authors:

"...neuroscience, biology, and evolutionary psychology have allowed us to peek under the hood...to learn more about the human brain...our synthesis of the research suggests that people are guided by four basic emotional needs, or drives, that are the product of our common evolutionary heritage."

According to Lawrence and Nohria, four drives are: to acquire, to bond, to learn, and to defend.These drives are fundamental to everything that we do; these are innate, universal, and hardwired in the brain. Managers need to work on these drives of employees.

Drive to Acquire. According to Nohria and Lawrence, "This is the drive to seek, take control, retain objects, and gain personal experiences." Employees like enhancement in status, being promoted, gain social power, and recognition from co-workers and superiors.

Drive to Bond is to form social relationships, bonds, connections within, and with other professionals outside the organization. Businesses should become people-friendly built on mutual support systems. Companionship, goodwill, teamwork, and collaboration should be encouraged to enhance personal and professional success.

Drive to Learn. It is the drive to grow, gain new skills, knowledge, and take up challenges. A job should be challenging; work should be stimulating. Assignments should be designed to make employees feel that they are making meaningful contributions. Employees should be assigned a wide variety of tasks and responsibilities to enhance their confidence.

Drive to Defend is to protect oneself against threat and injustice. People like to preserve their status and defend their position. An organization should provide a support system by making sure that the working environment is fair, open, and transparent. Open communication and opportunities to state grievances should be encouraged.

According to Nohria and Lawrence, social drives trigger the same part of the brain as the satisfaction of physical needs. "Social motivators like these will activate dopamine in the brain and trigger the brain's reward systems (The Neuroscience of Motivation)." Just the prediction that there will be a reward would enhance dopamine levels in the brain and provide an incentive to carry on with the project. These social drives are vital in planning policies, procedures, and dealing with employees.

David Rock's SCARF Model and Employee Motivation

David Rock developed the SCARF model in 2008. In his article on SCARF: A Brain-Based Model, he provided details on how neuroscience and motivation are closely linked. SCARF is an acronym that stands for five social domains that influence our behavior and actions.

Status: The relative importance to others

Certainty: Being able to predict the future

Autonomy: The sense of control over events

Relatedness: Feelings of safety with others

Fairness: The perception of fair exchange between people

According to David Rock, the satisfaction or lack of it on a job, activates the reward or threat circuitry of the brain. For example, a perceived threat to status would impact the same networks of the brain as threats to one's life that activates the "fight or flight" response. Autonomy or relatedness would activate the same reward circuitry as receiving a monetary award.

Therefore, jobs should not be considered as business transactions where employees are told, "you have to do this to get paid." Work assignments should be taken as social systems. Social needs are as hard-wired in the brain as physical needs. Social motivators or lack of these affect the dopamine in the brain. An HR manager should devise policies that appeal to the social aspect of the brain. Importance should be given to teamwork, camaraderie, recognition, and promotions in jobs.


Neuroscience findings have brought a pivotal change in the concept and application of motivation. It has provided insights into the fact that motivation has a biological and physiological basis. The center of the motivation is in the brain.

The Four Drive theory and the SCARF model have modified the previous motivation theories with the findings of neuroscience. These theories provide road-maps that managers can use to enhance the productivity of employees and to plan policies and procedures for their organizations. In the words of David Rock,

"May your cortisol levels stay low, your dopamine levels high, your oxytocin run thick and rich, your serotonin build to a lovely plateau, and your ability to watch your brain at work keeps you fascinated until your last breath. I wish you well on your journey."(Your Brain at Work)

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