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.


I forgot to be me

It’s that time of day. You wake up and start to get ready for work. The moment you step out of your door, you become this other person. You stop being yourself. You start being Mr (amend title as necessary) Worker. Expectations about your daily interactions change immediately. The commute to work must involve as little interaction with other commuters. The drive to work must involve efficiency and expediency. In fact, efficiency becomes the order of the day. If it’s not efficient, be prepared for my ire.

On reaching work, this sense of efficiency and being Mr Worker is amplified ten-fold. The moment we walk in the door we cease being Mr Worker, and start being Mr Expects Everything. As loathe as I am to talk about Maslow, suddenly all those basic and secondary level needs become the thing to focus on. Feed me. Water me. Provide toilet and washroom facilities. Have eating areas. Have communal areas. Have meeting rooms. Have desks. Have IT equipment. And then we start to also move on to Herzberg type factors. Give me objectives. Give me development. Give me promotion and progression. Want. Give. Now. Or risk disengaging me and losing me to another company.

I think the issues here are complex. Those motivation theorists I’ve mentioned have heavily influenced the way businesses structure themselves and provide work environments. At an architectural level, not many buildings are designed to be conducive to allowing relationships to happen at work, or give people the freedom to work across groups. Most office spaces follow the same rules where they have silos for distinct work groups. Want to collaborate with another team? Sure, leave your office, go to theirs in another part of the building, navigate corridors and doors, and enter their door and their space. Let battle commence.

At an organisational level, we want things to be simple and to make sense. So having distinct teams sitting together seems to make sense. But what happens when you give people projects to do which require them to collaborate closely? Suddenly reporting structures, line management responsibilities, authority and autonomy all become confused and we start to break down. We don’t do well when lines of clarity become blurred, so we pop our head in the sand and wait for it to be fixed.

At a management level, people need to be developed and supported. They need to know there’s a plan in place for them to do well, and they have the support of their manager to do so. Suddenly things such as weekly catch ups, review meetings, feedback training, coaching training, emotional intelligence, and an array of other needs become important. Some will learn as they go along, others will get training, and some will fail miserably. We’re just too focused at having management structures that we forget to think about organisationally, are they in the right position, doing the right job with the right team.

At a corporate level, we impose restrictions on behaviour by giving a list of policies, procedures, guidelines and processes before someone starts, when they start, and when they’ve been with us for years. We actively tell you that you’re not allowed to be ‘you’. You are now owned by ‘us’. You will do our bidding. If you want to be you, jump through hoops and barriers, become CEO, and even though you’re not allowed to be you. You are only allowed to be you when you leave.

At an individual level, things become really complicated. We each of us have career ambitions, aspirations, desires and motivations. Not matter how small or large they may be, they exist. We have personal lives with problems/challenges aplenty. We have personalities, stereotypes, judgements and more. And when we walk through that entrance to work, we’re asked to forget all that in place of competency frameworks, talent management systems, performance management programmes and learning and development interventions.

Life certainly got complicated, didn’t it?

The day I climbed a mountain

Today was an important day for me. For some weeks I’ve been planning a set of actions that will help me to achieve more with my role. I have nothing but love for the work I do and the people I work with. I say this with no hint of cynicism or exaggeration. Nor am I being coerced into saying it.

A few weeks back I wrote a post about how I gained some clarity on how I need to act in order to move forward. Since then I’ve been free in my thinking of what I need to do and how I can achieve it. I’ve also allowed myself to be comfortable with not doing certain actions. Today I ate my frog and moved passed the last piece of what I perceived to be a personal barrier. That’s now gone.

Right now, I have that clarity again on what I need to do. There’s goals and achievements I want to work towards and am again free to go about doing so. A number of things needed to be in place for this to work, and ultimately I’m the only one to be in control of what that entailed.

I’m smiling right now. Because tomorrow is a journey I’m about to craft to the shape of my mountain. What lies ahead I welcome. I have success in my sights.

What coaching did for me

When you consider L&D in the workplace, it covers a broad remit of skills and behaviour that people want to learn, develop and do more with. There’s never a one size fits all that works for everyone in the business. There’s just too many variables to try and account for. It’s awful to call people variables, but it is true. A person’s mood, their personality, how they learn, how much time they have, if the training is relevant, opportunity to practise, company culture, all of this and more impacts the way a person learns, and what they want from learning.

And on top of that day to day tasks, objectives, projects, meetings, last minute work, and we face the age old problem of not having enough time to invest in L&D. So let’s assume all of these things are working together. Let’s assume you have the opportunities, and the resources to take part in learning and development. It’s a combination of events that enhance a person’s learning. Reading, discussing, analysing, criticism, feedback, coaching, writing. This all helps to keep the mind ticking over about your own development.

And it’s the coaching piece I’d like to focus on. In recent months I’ve had the benefit of working with David Goddin and Christine Livingstone in a professional capacity. I know these guys through Twitter, and have built a relationship with them over time. With both, in different capacities, I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with them and reflect on the issues I had. So what is it they helped me to do?

Well, to ask myself the questions I hadn’t given myself the opportunity to ask myself. They listened to what I was facing, and asked guiding questions that helped me think about what I was doing and what I was thinking. They offered feedback on what I was saying, on their perceptions of what I was describing and kept getting me to think about what this means for now and for the future.

And what was the outcome of these talks? Clarity of thought. For that’s what I believe Coaching helps you to arrive at. Whatever that clarity of thought looks like, that’s what it provides. For me, that clarity of thought was on knowing what my next steps need to be. And that’s powerful stuff. It’s not as simple as – go talk to Bob. It’s about your whole attitude, beliefs, desires, motivations and purpose for being. That’s what drives the action. You make a decision about what you want to achieve and how you want to do it. And it’s no understatement to say it’s powerful.

After the conversations and since I have been motivated to do more. Although they may have focused on one particular problem or issue I was facing, the learning I took from them was further reaching. I could see that my decisions I wanted to take to tackle those problems, could easily work for other areas of my life that I wanted to see something change. And that wasn’t after some time had passed. That was while I was thinking about and discussing the problem at hand with my coach.

I’ve always advocated coaching as a key management technique and firmly believe this is the best way for people to progress and develop at work. As a personal development tool it is equally valuable. The trick is always to find a coach that is compatible with your style and you can build a rapport with in order for it to be effective.

David’s company is Change Continuum. Christine’s company is A Different Kind of Work.