At every organizational level, finding the right level of motivation has always been the key to successful employee development.
By Ron Karr for Training Magazine
At every organizational level, from new hires to senior management, finding the right level of motivation has always been the key factor in expanding competence and achievement. Since a company cannot achieve its ideal objective without such individuals, the main questions for effective development have always been:
- What is true motivation?
- How can it be cultivated?
- How can we gain buy-in from employees on whose efforts our success depends?
The answers come in part from an unexpected source: neuroscience. The chemistry of the human brain, having ensured our species’ survival over the past 300,000 or so years, has a profound effect on our behavior today. That behavior can help individuals and groups succeed, but it also can de-motivate them, making the achievement of personal and professional goals all but impossible.
In a nutshell, there are three key hormones involved in gaining buy-in and increasing motivation. Cortisol (sometimes called the stress hormone) does many things for us. Most of them are good, like engagement and memory formation, but if cortisol levels rise sharply in response to interruptions, demands, or other outside stimuli, then our automatic, fight-or-flight mode kicks in and we become impervious to reflection and change.
Two other hormones, oxytocin and dopamine, are also part of our evolutionary heritage and have profound effects on motivation. The former is our bodies’ unconscious response to others’ genuine signals of friendliness, interest, and support. It stimulates feelings of trust and connection. The latter, dopamine, is known as the pleasure hormone. It’s our bodies’ way of rewarding ourselves for accomplishing activities that meet a real need. It also boosts our attention and regulates our movement, learning, and emotional responses.
This doesn’t mean training and development programs should start retaining neuroscience experts. But if we become more aware of these hormones and their effects, then we can significantly alter our approach when dealing with employees. In doing so, we will increase the possibility of greater buy-in and enable our people to attain greater competence and self-motivation.
A Case in Point
Some time ago, an industrial client of mine demonstrated a typical, management-employee impasse—one that was creating mutual frustration and de-motivation. As I was talking with the CEO, a line supervisor walked in, utterly flabbergasted over a welder who was “always on his damn cell phone!” The job was late, and the employee would not comply with repeated demands to get off the cell phone and get back to work.
As a result of the supervisor’s demands, the employee’s cortisol level invariably would have shot up, making him feel he needed to defend his actions. He was not interested in solving the issue but rather in defending himself from attack.
So with the CEO’s permission, I asked the supervisor to do a little role-playing exercise—with me as supervisor and him as the employee. I asked what he wanted to achieve professionally. The answer: Become a master welder. So the discussion centered on the employee’s aspirations, the quality of his work (which was good), and what it would take to make up for delays.
After this impromptu coaching session, the supervisor tried the approach and had a much different reaction. The subject of cell phone use was never mentioned. Instead, they discussed the master welder objective and ways to meet it. Cortisol levels went down, as the employee now was actively engaged and motivated to help find the solution for getting the job back on time.
Out of evolutionary necessity, our fight-or-flight response automatically conserves energy by shutting down unnecessary systems. Unfortunately, those “unnecessary” systems often include empathy, reflection, and reasoning. Under those conditions, no amount of explaining the rules can get through.
However, a genuine expression of empathy and interest often triggers an oxytocin-based response of trust and connection. The parties also experience a greater sense of control—which itself provides a dopamine-based reward. Emotionally, they feel a greater connection and an intrinsic motivation to achieve a mutually desirable outcome.
Implications for Training and Development
As I said, it does not take a neuroscience expert to take full advantage of these principles. Training and development, whether in formal settings or informal ones, can only benefit when the principals are aware of unconscious responses and can take steps to deal with them.
First, an instructor or mentor is also a human being. They, too, are subject to hormone-induced stress responses that limit their ability to think and act in everyone’s best interests. So the first exercise for a trainer or Human Resources professional in a stressful situation is to master what I call “The Art of the PAUSE.” When disruptions occur, always stop and ask questions such as, “What is really happening here? Am I simply reacting to an unwelcome disruption?”
Then ask, “Am I seeing all the objectives—not just mine but others’, as well?” Then, knowing it’s not your job to meet every single need, ask, “What can I actually do right now?” By practicing this yourself, you’ll be better able to apply it to your strategy for employee development.
Second, always recognize that emotional, hormonal responses cannot be artificially manipulated. Sincerity cannot be faked. If you express genuine friendliness, interest, and support for an employee’s objectives, then the likely result will be a sense of trust and connection triggered by a rise in oxytocin. However, people are usually well aware of counterfeit empathy, which will only produce elevated cortisol levels and resistance.
In coaching parlance, the ability to connect with employees on an empathetic level is known as being present. For trainers and development professionals, that means developing the ability to PAUSE, take responsibility, and maintain a mindset focused on accomplishing shared objectives.