How many management articles, books, speeches and workshops have pleaded plaintively, "How do I get employees to do what I want?"
Motivating people to do their best work, consistently, has been an enduring challenge for executives and managers. Even understanding what constitutes human motivation has been a centuries old puzzle, addressed as far back as Aristotle. Now brain science is giving us some new insights into motivation.
When Frederick Herzberg researched the sources of employee motivation during the l950s and l960s, he discovered a dichotomy that still intrigues and baffles managers: The things that make people satisfied and motivated on the job are different in kind from the things that make them dissatisfied. Ask workers what makes them unhappy at work, and you'll hear them talk about insufficient pay or an uncomfortable work environment, or "stupid" regulations and policies that are restraining or the lack of job flexibility and freedom. So environmental factors can be demotivating, but even if managed brilliantly, fixing these factors won't motivate people to work harder or smarter.
It turns out that people are motivated by interesting work, challenge, and increasing responsibility--intrinsic factors. People have a deep-seated need for growth and achievement. Herzberg's work influenced a generation of scholars and researchers--but never seemed to make an impact on managers in the workplace, where the focus on motivation remained the "carrot-and-stick" approach, or external motivators.
What do we mean by motivation? It's been defined as a predisposition to behave in a purposeful manner to achieve specific, unmet needs and the will to achieve, and the inner force that drives individuals to accomplish personal and organizational goals. And why do we need motivated employees? The answer is survival. Motivated employees are needed in our rapidly changing workplaces, and to be effective, managers need to understand that and do something about it.
A review of the research literature by James R. Lindner at Ohio State University concluded that employee motivation was driven more by factors such as interesting work than financial compensation. John Baldoni, author of Great Motivation Secrets of Great Leaders, concluded that motivation comes from wanting to do something of one's own free will, and that motivation is simply leadership behavior--wanting to do what is right for people and the organization.
More recently, due to the expanding field of neuroscience, we've acquired new insights into the motivation issue. In the July, 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review, authors Nitin Nohria, Boris Groysberg and Linda-Eling Lee describe a new model of employee motivation. They outline the four fundamental emotional drives that underlie motivation as: The drive to acquire (the acquisition of scarce material things, including financial compensation, to feel better); the drive to bond (developing strong bonds of love, caring and belonging); the drive to comprehend (to make sense of our world so we can take the right actions); and the drive to defend (defending our property, ourselves and our accomplishments).
Norhria and associates argue that managers who try to increase motivation must satisfy all of these four drives. Best practice companies have initiated reward systems based on performance; addressed the bond drive by developing a corporate culture based on friendship, mutual reliance, collaboration and sharing; addressed the drive of comprehend by instituting job design system where jobs are designed for specific roles, and those jobs are meaningful and foster a sense of contribution to the organization. And finally to address the defend drive, best practice companies restructure their leadership approaches to increase transparency of all processes, ensure fairness through the organization and build trust and openness with everyone.
In his new book, Drive, Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, describes what he says is "the surprising truth" about what motivates us. Pink says that true motivation boils down to three elements: Autonomy, the desire to direct our own lives; mastery, the desire to continually improve at something that matters to us, and purpose, the desire to do things in service of something larger than ourselves. Pink, joining a chorus of many others, warns that the traditional "command-and-control" management methods in which organizations use money as a contingent reward for a task, are not only ineffective as motivators, but actually harmful.
And brain science is now giving us some physiological clues as to how motivation works. Consider this: 98% of everything scientists know about the human brain has been discovered in the last 6 years; 80% of what scientists thought was true about the human brain before 1995 has now been found to be false, or misleading.
A U.S. National Institute of Health study, using brain scans, has found that the neurotransmitter dopamine is central to the human brain network governing motivation as well as reward and pleasure. Joseph Le Doux, in his book, Human Emotions: A Reader, describes new recent brain research that has shown that emotions are the driver for decision-making, which includes aspects of motivation.
In summary, the implications for managers in organizations are significant. Leaders today must be not just be cognizant of the latest research on motivation, but take action to make those organizational and relationship changes to take advantage of this research.