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.

Using neuroscience in L&D design

At last week’s CIPD L&D Show, there was an interesting talk from think.change about using neuroscience to design effective L&D programmes. Ian Pettigrew did a great job of live blogging the talk which you should take the time to read for context to this post.

As an L&D practitioner it has always been important to me to know that the learning I am designing meets a number of criteria. One is that it has to be relevant. That kind of goes without saying but it’s easily overlooked. Next is that the content I am using is current. We don’t need to peddle old theories just because they exist. Another is that the content itself has to be validated or researched in some way.

I add those together and I have a recipe for a good set of outcomes. Theories like neuroscience help us to understand how to apply better design principles to the learning design process.

Here are my key takeaway points:

Always ensure the learning environment is the best it can be.

It’s easy to just sit in a room and have nothing stimulating the brain visually or via other senses. Bring flowers into the classroom, use colours on slide decks, have nuts and fruits available, if possible have natural sunlight.

If it’s online based learning just adapt the thinking. Use images instead of text-heavy slides, prompt people with questions instead of prescribing methodologies, make use of on-screen tools like highlighter pens and laser pointers.

Help create new habits

The brain is geared up for habit making. Once it learns something it keeps it. If you’re introducing new thinking the brain needs time to get there. You can have lots of fun with this. Give content prior to the session, build in lots of practise moments, provide targeted feedback to improve, create learning forums. All these things, and many besides, help the brain make those new neural connections to create new habits.

Breaks are important

We can’t focus and maintain performance for long periods of time. Our pre-frontal cortex is our executive functioning area which means it is that part of the brain where we use our intelligence and smarts to get things done. But it’s got a limited period of efficiency. That’s why it’s important to take breaks and also to break up the format of the learning session. We can chop and change activities to good effect. Just be mindful this is not the same as multi-tasking. This is about focused activity at different times and for varying lengths of time.

It’s also why sleep and rest are so inportant. Those are vital times when the brain digests the learning from the day and decides how to create new networks for the next time. When we experience tiredness and burnout is when we’ve exercised the pre-frontal cortex beyond its capability and capacity.

Reward is important too

When we do a task or activity and we’re given encouragement for it the brain releases the chemical dopamine. Dopamine helps us to feel good and the brain wants more of that. In a learning environment it’s important to be mindful of how we encourage and reward the behaviour we’re seeking to improve or change.

There is a danger that people may just fake a behaviour in order to receive praise or encouragement in front of others. I have no easy answer to that.

There’s also a danger some people seek that dopamine hit via other methods. In the learning environment we can be fairly certain it’s a safe environment for reward to be genuine. Outside of that environment and it’s up to the individual what they do.

One of the things this helped me reflect on is that if you’ve been designing learning well, then you have in all likelihood been doing the above anyway. What we know now, though, is that there are more purposeful ways to ensure good learning design happens so that we are helping learners to engage in brain friendly techniques.

What neuroscience explains and challenges about leadership

Dr Jacqui Grey from the NeuroLeadership Institute introduced this session by asking the following sets of questions:

How many of you wake up with your brain racing?
How many have trouble generally sleeping?
How many get to Thursday and forget things?
How many take a device wherever you go?

Her leading point was that there is a correlation with cognitive overload and poor decision making. In particular she said as the working week goes on we become overloaded with too much information and we naturally become more tired until the weekend. In terms of work, and how productive we are, we should schedule important work earlier in the week, and aim for the earlier part of the day, as the same principle applies as the day goes on.

In practice, I wonder what this means for project based work, and project deadlines. We place a lot of importance on delivering things at the end of the day, or at the end of a week. Yet if the brain is reaching a natural point of saturation, are we self-perpetuating a set of practices which are detrimental to our mental and physical health?

Dr Grey went on to describe that the 21st century is causing problems and challenges of leadership, which cause challenges to neuroleadership. Some quotes from the session provide useful context:

“Majority of people trust a stranger more than their boss.” To this point she helped frame a question by asking how many people would we trust with our children, or personal security codes or passwords. One of the reasons we trust a few people is because of the longevity of time we have spent with these trusted people. At work, we actively make this more difficult for ourselves by forcing a trusted relationship to happen, which is by nature unnatural. The brain needs time to process and understand the other person, and if we force this, we are not supporting the brain’s natural ability to create the necessary links to trust and work with others.

“65% of people prefer a better boss over a raise.” A key challenge for 21st century leaders is how do you grow people under the pressure of external environment. 98% of leaders interviewed admitted to misreading a situation because of preconceived beliefs. We have so much information, and so much noise to deal with, the automatic reaction of the body is to jump to conclusions. The limbic system, in this instance, jumps in and causes the well known amygdala hijack. We can train ourselves to reach calm sooner, and methodologies such as mindfulness help with this. I also think insights about the emotion timeline as described by Dr Paul Ekman help us to understand how emotion forces the body to act in certain ways.

Jacqui went on to talk about performance management in particular. Feedback, no matter how well delivered, is always hard to hear. When we tell people we’re due to have a conversation about performance, we’re already pushing them to a ‘threat state’. That is, we’re pushing them to a physiological set of reactions which mean the person is not ready to hear a message, no matter how minor it may be.

To change this reaction, the organisation needs to move towards a regular feedback model. I’ve expunded this for years, and am glad that there is some research to back this up. Essentially, if we have a regular set of conversations about performance, we allow the brain to adjust and make space to hear those messages and handle them differently. If we stick to the tired tradition of once a year reviews, we are not preparing either party to have a successful discussion, and almost inevitably end up with lacklustre and below par performance reviews.

The final thing to be shared was the SCARF model. Thinking about this model can help us move away from threat and toward a reward state. If we understand which of the following is important to an individual, we can focus on that to provide a way to help them engage with their work better. Importantly, these components are factors which inform action and decision making capabilities.

Status – how we rank ourselves in relation to someone else.

Certainty – can’t always give people the answers. This is about change.

Autonomy – being able to make own decisions.

Relatedness – feeling part of a group, inclusion.

Fairness – justice and pay.

This was a really useful session, and I enjoyed learning more about this topic. On hearing it, I’m of the opinion that if we understand this subject area better, we can be better performing HR/L&OD professionals. I would go so far as to argue that this topic is more important than big data as it is truly about people performance, and what we can do to improve the way we lead and the way we inspire others to act.