Strategy. Innovation. Brand.

employee motivation

Brain Networks At The Office

Quick! Activate the default network!

Quick! Activate the default network!

When you’re “zoned out”, your brain’s default network kicks in and processes stuff. What kind of stuff? Well, not new stuff because you’re zoned out and no new stuff is coming in. You’ve unhooked yourself from the grid and the only thing your brain can work on is stuff that’s already in your brain. It’s like mentally chewing your cud.

It turns out the default network contributes in very important ways to creativity. As Adam Waytz and Malia Mason point out in a recent issue of Harvard Business Review, the default network is “… responsible for one of our most prized abilities: transcendence. The capacity to envision what it’s like to be in a different place, a different time, a different person’s head, or a different world altogether is unique to humans….”

To create creative environments, managers are beginning to realize the importance of allowing employees to “unhook” and activate their default networks. Unfocused free time is critical to creative thinking and innovation. As I’ve pointed out before, too much focus can kill creativity. Waytz and Mason point out that many of the “creative time off” programs at companies like Google may still miss the mark. They focus on quantity of time off, rather than quality.  The authors argue that it may be better to focus on “total detachment” rather than the number of days off. The idea is to “unfocus” and activate the default network rather than to shift focus to a project of personal interest.

In addition to the default network, Waytz and Mason identify three other brain networks that can contribute to improved performance and productivity. These are: the reward network, the affect network, and the control network. Let’s look at the reward network today. We’ll visit the affect and control networks tomorrow.

Waytz and Mason compare the reward network to a hedonometer, a hypothetical instrument that could “…measure the amount of pleasure or displeasure we feel in response to any stimulus”. The reward network “…reliably activates in response to things that evoke enjoyment and deactivates in response to things that reduce enjoyment”.

In animals, the reward network activates when the animal encounters something– like food or water — that has clear survival value. The same is true of humans. But there’s more to the human reward system. Unlike animals, the human reward system activates  for “secondary” rewards – those that have no direct survival value.

Money is clearly an important secondary reward, but numerous, non-monetary secondary rewards also exist. Some are obvious, like status and recognition. Others are less obvious, like fairness. Waytz and Mason argue that employees’ reward systems light up when they perceive their organization to be fair. When the organization is perceived to be unfair, the reward system dims and employees lose motivation. This is true both for employees who benefit from the unfairness and for those who suffer from it. As Waytz and Mason put it, “A fair environment is a reward to people regardless of their standing”.

So how do you fine tune the reward system? Both fairness and transparency are important. Somewhat surprisingly, so is the expectation of learning. When employees expect that they will learn something, the reward system activates and motivation rises. Goals are also important but Waytz and Mason argue that broad goals that provide employees some room to maneuver activate the reward network more effectively than narrowly defined, overly stringent goals that leave little room for judgment.

And what about money? Well, it can be useful. But Waytz and Mason conclude that, “Any number of things employers can do ‘on the cheap’—fostering a culture of fairness and cooperation, offering opportunities for people to engage their curiosity, and providing plenty of social approval—will motivate employees as much if not more [than money]”. So think about money in your reward structure … but not too much.


How To Undermine Your Employees

What’s the best way to motivate employees? According to Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, it’s progress. In a recent article in the McKinsey Quarterly, Amabile and Kramer write that a sense of progress on meaningful objectives is fundamental to motivation. If your employees feel they’re doing something meaningful and making progress on it, they’re motivated. If they feel they’re doing something that’s not meaningful — or don’t understand why it’s meaningful — then motivation wanes. If they don’t sense that they’re making progress, motivation dies.

Amabile and Kramer go on to say that executives often commit four errors that undermine employee motivation. Here they are:

Mediocrity signals — your mission statement may include soaring language with emotionally appealing overtones. However, what you say to your employees day-to-day may say the opposite. Amabile and Kramer give the example of a company that claimed to be dedicated to innovation driven by autonomous teams. It’s quite possible that they believed their own rhetoric. In their day-to-day activities, however, they emphasized cost savings and undermined team autonomy by dictating cost reduction measures. Ultimately, employees came to perceive the rhetoric as hypocritical and lost their enthusiasm. Moral: what you say should be consistent with what you do.

Strategic attention deficit disorder — I once worked for a CEO who travelled a lot. After every trip, he’d come back with a new idea derived from an airline magazine article. We all braced for a YAGI — yet another great idea. Actually, some of them probably were great ideas. But there were too many of them. We were just getting started on one when another one superseded it. Amabile and Kramer give the example of a company led by a CEO with a short attention span and a “…desire to embrace the latest management trends. … If you blinked, you could miss the next strategic shift.” Moral: consistency over time is not boring, it’s motivational.

Corporate Keystone Kops — the Keystone Kops were famous for being uncoordinated. They literally couldn’t get out of each other’s way. Amabile and Kramer say the same phenomenon occurs far too often in the corporate world. Their examples include complex matrix organizations that make it difficult to know who’s in charge of what and a failure to hold departments and individuals accountable for meeting their commitments. If one team meets its commitments and another team doesn’t, the lack of coordination can spoil it for everybody. Moral: Keep it simple and keep it coordinated.

Misbegotten big hairy audacious goals — management gurus Jim Collins and Jerry Porras suggest that organizations should develop BHAGS — visionary goals that stir the emotions. The most cited example is probably John Kennedy’s challenge to NASA to put a man on the moon. It’s a great example but hard to emulate. Amabile and Kramer write that corporate BHAGs are often “… grandiose and [contain] little relevance or meaning to the people in the trenches. They can be so extreme as to seem unattainable and so vague as to seem empty. The result is a meaning vacuum. Cynicism rises and drive plummets.” The authors cite a chemical company whose BHAG was that all projects had to yield $100 million in annual revenue within five years of launch. “This goal did not infuse the work with meaning, because it had little to do with the day-to-day activities of people in the organization. … worst of all, it did not connect with anything the employees valued. Most of them wanted to provide something of value to their customers; an aggressive revenue target told them only about the value to the organization, not to the customer.” Moral: BHAGs are OK but make them meaningful to the people you’re trying to motivate. Keep them focused on customers and simple enough that the “people in the trenches” can get a sense of progress.

You can find Amabile and Kramer’s article, “How leaders kill meaning at work” by clicking here. You can also find their book, The Progress Prinicple, by clicking here.

Leadership and Motivation

Napoleon once said, “When I realized that men were willing to die for bits of colored ribbon, I knew I could rule the world.” It’s a wholly cynical sentiment but Napoleon was famous for creating and distributing military awards, citations, ribbons, medals, and orders. And for many years, it worked — his troops were highly motivated.

Several hundred years after Napoleon, Tony Blair said something quite similar (though I can’t find the exact quote). A journalist noted

Over to you, Tony.

that Blair was quite the egalitarian and asked if he might not abolish the English system of knighthoods and lordships. Blair responded (more or less), “You must be joking. The system is the most productive, least costly innovation engine in the world. It’s amazing how hard people will work for a tap on the shoulder from the Queen.”

Surprised that the English and the French might agree on something? Perhaps they’re on to something. The moral of the story is that praise and recognition can motivate people even more than money can. I’m surprised that we don’t use it more. I’ve seen far too many managers who are slow to recognize achievements and grudging with their compliments. I’m surprised because, as Tony Blair notes, praise is an inexpensive and productive way to motivate people.

Here’s an experiment. Ask a married couple what percentage of the house work each one does. Ask them separately so one doesn’t hear the other’s answer. Add the two percentages together. Almost certainly, the sum will be greater than 100%. Why? Because each member of the couple has a very good subjective sense of how hard they work. On the other hand, they don’t have that same sense for the other member of the couple. Each one knows how hard they work. It’s quite common that each one feels they deserve more recognition.

Similarly, after a complex project is concluded, ask each member of the team, “What percentage of the value did you personally deliver?” (Again, ask them separately). If the project team has six or more members, when you sum the responses the answer will very likely be greater than 200%. Each person has an inflated sense of how much they contributed.

As a manager, what should you do? The simple answer is to give more praise than you think is absolutely necessary. In fact, give about twice as much as you would normally do. After all, the French and English can’t both be wrong.

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