What do EI and Neuroscience tell us about Motivation?

There tend to be two main theorists at play when it comes to motivation at work – Maslow and Herzberg.

For a long while, I was a fan of both. And to an extent I still am.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is used in a lot of different contexts and helps us to understand that individuals are responsible for their own trajectory. I don’t disagree with that, and it can be a useful piece to have a discussion about life choices.

Herzberg’s Hygiene model helps us to understand that in an organisational setting, you have to take care of people’s basic needs before you should start doing more interesting things like improving employee benefits and the kind.

All well and good, until you start to realise that Maslow is quite hard to apply in an organisational setting (I can’t make you move up the hierarchy), and Herzberg is quite a transactional model (if I apply X, I should get Y).

I think they both help to lay down the basics of what we know about motivation.

There are two other theories I think are well worth considering now that we have more information.

Our understanding of emotions and how they drive behaviour is fundamentally changing. In the early days of EI, we were understood that it was important for successful business people to develop their emotional intelligence – the ability to have awareness of and understand your emotions and modify your behaviour as a result of them. Since then, various advancements have been made around formally identifying ways to develop EI capability via 360 models or coaching or peer to peer feedback.

Recent work now points to physiological changes the body goes through when we experience emotions. Not just how the body prepares itself, but how our body chemistry changes as a result of different emotions.

What this really starts to help us understand is that emotions are the very essential driving force behind everything we do. Each emotion we feel – and there is no bad or good emotion – helps us to achieve a goal, or protect ourselves from further harm. Being angry is a protective and aggressive mechanism because we have been stopped from achieving a goal. Feeling disgust helps the body to know to be aware of such things in the future. Surprise prepares the body for something unexpected and builds our resilience.

In an organisational setting, this means a true advancement in how to support our people and help them be their best. Our emotions will drive us to act in positive or negative ways, depending on how we receive information. If I like the way you are presenting to me, I’ll be in accord with you. If I don’t, I’ll have resistance. This is all about relationships, and understanding how people work.

It’s quite a complicated affair, and most managers and leaders haven’t got the time for it. Which goes counter against anything we know about organisational and individual performance. We want our managers and leaders to be the best they can to be successful, yet we’re not prepared to help them understand the basics of the human condition. We’ll offer one to one coaching and introductory programmes on topics and think that’s enough. Managers and leaders will think they’ve learned enough and try to do their best. Some will learn more, and most will just fumble along. What ends up happening is less about motivation and more about trial and error.

As we’re starting to understand more about how our emotions drive behaviour, we’re also understanding more about how the human brain works and what this means for organisational settings. Before I carry on, you totally need to read this – Why the Left-Brain Right-Brain Myth Will Probably Never Die. This is truly a fascinating development area and I’d argue still in its infancy. But what we know so far is quite compelling.

The human brain is a lazy thing. It likes habit and it likes to create neural pathways of least resistance. New behaviours means it has to learn what those behaviours are, and it means it has to spend time and energy doing that. Once it’s got a new behaviour sussed though, it becomes part of the way we do things. There’s no optimal time period that this happens because there are other factors like how embedded it is and what personal relevance a behaviour has for it to demand change.

In the workplace, then, this means we have to be more mindful about how we support new behaviours. If people are used to acting in a certain way, and we want them to change, that means having to encourage them to effectively create new neural pathways. That’s a lot more commitment than we may have been bargaining for. There are a lot of very good change theories out there which can help in this respect, it’s just worth considering that what we’re asking the brain to do is find a new level of lazy. And as we well know, some behaviours are embedded over years, and that’s the reason some people find it hard to change. Not because they don’t want to, but because the behaviours are so embedded the brain has to work extra hard to make the new change happen.

Related to this is the concept of neuroplasticity. This tells us that if the brain is in a state of regular stimulation and never allowed to become lazy, we are more likely to adapt quicker and apply various mental schema to problems we’re facing resulting in action sooner rather than later. What’s interesting here is that this is something we almost actively work against in the workplace. We hire people to do jobs which meet a set definition, and don’t want them doing anything more than that. We put people through training programmes which help develop new skills and behaviours and then do nothing to support the learned behaviours after the fact. Our organisational performance targets are essentially about business as usual which inherently says you don’t need to do more. We’re dumbing our brains down at work – that’s what this means.

It’s no surprise that people are finding new ways to connect and make meaning at work when this is what they’re faced with.

We’ve known for a long time about how various chemicals are released when the brain is feeling happy or positive. Serotonin, dopamine and endorphins are all helpful in moderation and under genuine circumstances to help us feel good about ourselves and towards others. We can support the brain to do this in purposeful ways at work. Thinking back to Herzberg, we know that recognition is important as a factor in motivating us. What we now also know is that we get little hits of feeling good when that happens. It’s easy to get cynical about this and suggest that it’s impossible to do this all day long, and that’s not the suggestion here. If we help people have more positive experiences at work than negative ones, then we’re helping them to create natural organisational alignment. That’s no easy task, but doing so means we support how we respond to the environment we’re in.

There’s more that I could write and say about EI and neuroscience, and am hoping that I’ve offered some initial insights into how we can do more to develop our understanding of motivation at work.

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Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

One thought on “What do EI and Neuroscience tell us about Motivation?”

  1. Seems to hark back to the basic fundamental in L&D that it takes a long time to obtain mastery, which can only be achieved with regular use and reinforcement (breaking old neural pathways and creating new ones) and that most organisations still fail to support newly learned skills, knowledge and behaviours until they are mastered. I read a book recently about neuroplasticity, something like ‘The plastic brain’ and it holds fascinating insights into how adaptable the brain is, but there still needs to be motivation to change and create new pathways, with supporting behaviours etc. Great article.

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