The Science of Motivation, and How to Apply It to Your Business

Motivation is a huge aspect of a person’s psychology. It is what drives each and every decision a person makes, from what they eat for breakfast to what career path they pursue. Understanding how motivation develops and changes over the course of a lifetime is an enormous field that encompasses several sciences, to include psychology as well as neurobiology, sociology and even philosophy. As a business leader, you should be especially interested in learning about the science behind motivation because motivation is especially important in the workplace.

Motivated employees are more productive, which means they work harder to solve problems, innovate, serve customers and more. If you have a firmer grasp of motivation and how to motivate your employees, you can improve your business by leaps and bounds. Fortunately, your first step is here: just keep reading.

Motivation in the Brain

As with every human behavior, motivation begins in the brain, so to truly understand how motivation works, you need to read a bit about neuroscience. To function, the brain and body relies on chemicals called neurotransmitters, which send different messages and produce different physical and psychological responses. When it comes to motivation, dopamine is the most important neurotransmitter. Though dopamine is famously known as the feel-good hormone — which is how it affects motivation — as a neurotransmitter, dopamine can have a powerful affect on how a person thinks, acts and feels.

Dopamine should trigger the good feeling that functions as the brain’s reward for doing something right, like eating calorie-rich foods or getting a good nights rest. Ideally, dopamine is released before you gain other rewards, so it encourages you to act rather than serving as the sole reward. However, there are a few different pathways that dopamine can travel, and where dopamine goes affects how you feel and react.

A study by Vanderbilt found that people willing to work harder, “go-getters,” had higher levels of dopamine in their striatum and prefrontal cortex, meaning that dopamine traveled primarily down the mesocortical and nigrostriatal pathways. Conversely, slackers were found to have more dopamine in their anterior insula, which is associated with risk perception and emotion. Amount of dopamine matters, too. Other studies have identified insufficient dopamine as a cause of Parkinson’s disease, while too much dopamine is correlated with schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders.

Motivation in Practice

You want your workforce to release plenty of dopamine before they get to work — but how do you make that happen? The answer is twofold: extrinsic and intrinsic motivators.

Extrinsic motivation comes from outside of your employee’s mind and body, which means you have more control over providing these kinds of motivators. Wages are a prime example of extrinsic motivation; the desire to earn their pay is what keeps your worker toiling away. However, workers can also receive extrinsic motivation from recognition and appreciation or even words of encouragement. You might look for motivational gifts for employees to hand out at opportune times, when extra motivation is necessary or hang up posters with motivational messages. Over time, the same extrinsic motivators can become less effective, so it is important to switch up your motivational tactics every so often.

Meanwhile, intrinsic motivation comes from within, meaning your employees develop this motivation for themselves. Intrinsic motivation is best described as passion or ambition; you might be able to take advantage of an employee’s internal drive by rewarding them with responsibilities or opportunities, but you will find it difficult to generate it out of nothing. Instead, you should prioritize hiring employees who seem to have sufficient intrinsic motivation from the get-go. Then, you can leverage that motivation using competition or contagion, which occurs when one particularly motivated worker inspires intrinsic motivation in others. You need a motivated workforce, but maintaining high levels of motivation over time is easier said than done. You need to keep your workers’ dopamine levels high — but not too high — and ensure they travel down the right pathways in the brain. Short of consistent dopamine checks, you can ensure your employees remain motivated by treating them with respect, recognizing their accomplishments and offering rewards at critical times. When you understand the science of motivation, the practice of motivation becomes simple.