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Your Brain and Motivation at Work

September 17, 2014

This blog probably started 30 years ago when I was a psychologist and consulting at Rancho Los Amigos hospital in the return to work department for brain injured patients.  I’m fascinated with how our brain works, and the implications for how to better structure work around what naturally motivates us and fits how our brain processes experiences most easily.  This is stuff that can change your whole day – have fun with the read. 

How our brain is wired to be motivated

First let’s start with a quick review of what motivates us, e.g. how our brain is naturally wired to be motivated.  You want that going on at work right?  There’s an excellent synopsis from a Dan Ariely TED presentation, that will give you the basics.  Here’s the entire presentation in 135 words:

  1. Seeing the fruit of your labor, the end product, is motivating – conversely seeing what you have produced thrown out is very de-motivating.
  2. The less appreciated or utilized our work is, the more money we want to be paid (to compensate)
  3. The harder a project, and the more effort we put into it, the more we are proud of our work… (and also tend to assume others will value it similarly)
  4. Having it confirmed by others that your work helped them, increases your motivation and output
  5. The promise to help or benefit others, not just our selves, inspires us to higher standards, better decisions
  6. Positive reinforcement about our competency and behavior vs. criticalness or negativity improves performance
  7. Seeing or thinking about positive images, helps improve our focusing ability

Ok, so you read or scanned (you may just have looked at the bold print) the 7 sentences above and then your brain, my brain, does this interesting thing.  It’s trying to figure out what to do with it.  It’s too much to memorize.  On the other hand, before you leave the content and focus on the next paragraph, your brain would like to synthesize this all down to a a patter or sequence… and answer to the question you may not have voiced, but are likely thinking, which is:
What does this all mean… for me… for others?”

So let me help out.  Here’s one way to draw this to a simple conclusion.  It’s Thomas Czerner’s quote from “What Makes You Tick“.  He writes, “The brain needs to see a happy face and to hear occasional laughter to cement its neural circuitry.” 

Given what Dan and Thomas are writing, how would you combine the two pieces of content… e.g. what’s the bottom line when it comes to what motivates you and me based upon how our brain functions best?

I ask you the combining question, because here’s the interesting thing (I’ll talk about this in the next blog), if you’ll interact with the content to form some kind of synthesis or “take-away” you’ll do better at remembering it (your brain locks it in).

How about this as an example:
Our brain (at work) needs to experience positive results, and when it does it’s naturally motivating, our brain actually starts focusing better, being more accurate, making better decisions.  I’m sure you can do better, in part because it will be your personal version or take-away.  When we make it personal we all remember or apply a concept better.  All good stuff to think about, at work and at home.

So, with that it mind, take a moment before I wrap up, and write out how you’re going to get more positive stuff going on at work to the extent you can control that.  Or better yet draw it on the back of some scrap paper you have laying around and paste it to your wall for a  couple of days with a big happy face.  Specifically how are you going to:

  1. Help yourself and others experience the positive that comes from seeing the outcome, the benefit to others… and
  2. Create more positive reinforcement, (remember to appreciate and value) for others and yourself about something specific that goes into the effort each day?

 But we aren’t finished yet.  There’s two other key things that motivate our brain to focus, to assist us in improving performance, and it has to do with the social wiring in our brain.  Here’s the other two key drivers:

  1. The observation, competition, accountability continuum.  Our brains are motivated by having someone observe us, even more so by having someone compete with us as well as hold us accountable.  You’ll find research to support that dating back to the 1930’s and the “Hawthorne Effect.”
  2. The Engaged Goal effect.  There are dozens of studies that verify our brain responds, and so does our performance, to engaging in goal oriented behavior.  Setting goals… not so much.  It’s the engagement part that is key, but when our brain is engaged with our goals, we just seem to naturally have the internal wiring to respond.  What drives engagement with goals?  Well a number of factors, including setting them ourselves, having someone engaged in giving us feedback (back to the observation and social phenomenon), visually seeing a goal as realistic and viewing it as essential all help.  But I suggest you look at my goal category in this blog if you are interested in more detail.

Bottom Line:

Our brains are naturally wired to work much better, faster, more accurately and productively when we experience the positive of seeing the end result, including the benefit to others; and when we experience internally and from others an appreciation for our competency and contribution.  Our brain also works best when we experience some form of observation – accountability, as well as being engaged in the pursuit of a meaningful goal.  Our brain is just wired to work best that way, and to the extent we can create that environment at work, we’ll all see better results.


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