3 Forms of Motivation to Activate Your Employees’ Brains

In order to activate your employees’ brains, let’s think about our traditional perspective on success. The Protestant work ethic has an established place in both theology and business: The harder you work, the more likely you are to reach your goals.  

Yet, as hard as employees at modern companies seem to work, only 30 percent of their business strategies are successfully executed. And even at the companies on the right side of that statistic, leaders feel they’re not achieving their goals fast enough.   

Seeking to boost speed, leaders typically step in and try to address external processes. For example, they might set more goals, add more extrinsic incentives, or streamline the company’s decision-making processes — all of which can have some value in increasing the speed of execution. But ultimately, external factors aren’t the greatest indicators of whether a company is on track to reach its goals. The business environment is changing far too rapidly.

In order to best enhance strategic speed, business unit heads need instead to leverage a very different resource: the brain.

This is where all goal setting, motivation, and creativity originate, so why not target the source when striving to enhance individual and team productivity?

The True Value of Controlling Motivation

Motivation is best driven by ensuring employees understand the company’s goals, are familiar with proper methodologies, and know the incentives they’ll receive if they do great work. But leaders can’t just skim the surface when addressing these factors.

Research shows the brain requires three specific prompts in order to truly feel motivated:

  1. Truth motivation: It’s not enough to state your goals to employees; they need to feel convinced via hard evidence that their actions are necessary. Show them real-life examples of why their efforts are vital.
  1. Control motivation: Explaining proper methodology is a great start, but leaders must also provide a deeper understanding of what is within an employee’s control and what is not. This will help workers find focus and avoid wasting time on problems outside their power.
  1. Value motivation: Employees must know the small- and big-picture values of their actions. They need to understand that their lives will improve if the business succeeds, and they need to see how boosting the success of their company will benefit consumers and the entire world.   

Genuine motivation comes only when tasks are seen as relevant in the eyes of employees, and leaders can achieve this by adding truth, control and value to their stated missions.

The Path to Setting Goals

Smart companies, leaders and employees all set goals — whether they’re daily, quarterly, or annual milestones they hope to achieve. What they don’t realize, though, is that without proper guidance, their brains will have a hard time finding the right paths to success. Over time, sub-goals inevitably arise and interfere with the primary goal. And when that happens, each goal has to selfishly fend for itself inside the brain.

For example, an employee who is tasked with making a certain amount of money in a specified time frame may get the flu in the process, activating his or her fear of sickness or mortality. Now, the employee has two conflicting goals at the same time: The goal of “taking it easy,” and the initial goal of “working hard.”

Similar to motivation, the goals that rise to the top are the ones employees subconsciously believe to be most true, controllable, and valuable.

ROAR at Your Employees

By now, the pattern is clear: Employees feel most motivated when they have a deeper understanding of why their duties are important, how they add value to the world around them, and what exactly is within their control.

Managers and leaders should consider using a brain-based framework of motivation called “relevance of a representation” (ROAR) — which centralizes around the topics of truth, control, and value — to help employees prioritize their goals and build stronger brain maps.

Through ROAR, leaders can ask employees leading questions that help promote a clear comprehension of their company’s goals, initiatives and top priorities.

A few examples of such questions:

  • Truth: “Is there any other course of action you think would be better?”
  • Control: “What factors that you have no control over are likely to arise? What strategy will you have in place when you are unclear about how to proceed?”
  • Value: “Why does this matter to you, the company, our customers, and the world?”

It’s best to employ frameworks such as ROAR as early in the decision-making process as possible. Leaders who use these strategies when communicating initiatives and goals provide their employees with invaluable context, which leads to a much-needed momentum boost.

In modern business, it’s easy and tempting to seek external fixes when addressing internal issues. But making large investments in tech tools or dangling more impressive incentives in front of employees only puts a Band-Aid on the underlying problem.

Target the brains of your employees. That’s the real solution to our need for speed.


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Srini Pillay

Dr. Srini Pillay, founder and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, is a pioneer in brain-based executive coaching who is dedicated to collaborating with experts to help people unleash their full potential. He also serves as a part-time assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the executive education programs at Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education.

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