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Motivation on the brain

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The art of understanding the neuroscience of motivation and then applying it in your workplace.

To move and inspire people, you must first understand them. With the flourishing field of neuroscience - the study of how the brain works, great advances have been made in understanding the science of motivation in the brain which can be applied to improve employee motivation in the workplace. 

The role motivation plays in the workplace

Motivation in the workplace is defined as the willingness to exert high levels of effort toward organisational goals conditioned by the effort’s ability to satisfy some individual needs. It has been heavily studied for more than a century for a simple reason - capitalising on knowing why people do what they do and fostering a motivated workforce means better organizational performance

Motivated employees improve an organisation’s productivity and its competitive advantage. They are more highly engaged, can better handle the unease that comes with uncertainty, generally make for better problem solvers, and are more innovative, creative, and customer focused.

Studies show that motivation theories heavily based on extrinsic rewards could not adequately explain human motivation, and so scientists began to focus on intrinsic rewards. Neuroscience, anchored in rich research, is giving scientists new understanding into human motivation.

Lawrence and Nohria’s drivers of human behavior model

In Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices (Jossey-Bass, 2002), Harvard professors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria blended motivation theory with neuroscience to arrive at what they believe are four fundamental patterns of human behavior:

  • Drive to acquire
  • Drive to defend
  • Drive to bond
  • Drive to learn

When HR and talent managers understand what drives a person’s behavior, they can design systems, policies, procedures, and practices that will appeal to each driver.

It is essential that HR and talent managers think holistically when taking actions to address each driver. Nohria, Groysberg, and Lee (2008) found through studies about applying the model to organizations that to most effectively improve employee motivation, organisations should focus on meeting all four drives simultaneously rather than focusing on just one or two drivers. Certain drivers tend to influence some motivational indicators (like engagement, employee satisfaction, commitment, and intention to quit) more than others. 

David Rock’s SCARF model and motivation

Another key model HR and talent management professionals can use to improve organization-wide motivation that combines motivational theory with neuroscience is David Rock’s SCARF model. The SCARF model is Rock’s framework for understanding how the brain responds to perceived threats and rewards. Neuroscience has shown that dopamine releases either a threat or reward response in the brain that motivates human action or behavior, and further, that social needs are treated by the brain in the same way as basic survival needs like food and water. Social needs, therefore, are not social conventions, but hardwired in the brain.

The social needs Rock refers to are:

  • Status
  • Certainty
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness
  • Fairness

Based on Rock’s model and neuroscience, a job should not be viewed as a business transaction but rather as a part of a social system in which the brain is rewarded (or punished) based on how well the business environment is meeting an employee’s need for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Employers should make efforts, then, to increase rewards and to minimise threats in these areas to best motivate employees.

Rock recommends that motivation strategies be designed to appeal to the social aspect of the brain. As such, developing a sense of affiliation (teamwork, belonging, camaraderie, and sharing of knowledge) and providing positive feedback are potentially some of the most powerful motivators in the workplace. Social motivators like these will activate dopamine in the brain and trigger the brain’s reward systems. 


Motivated employees outperform their unmotivated peers in productivity, innovation, creativity, and  customer service—all of which gives an organisation a competitive advantage that is vital in today’s high speed, hyper-connected business environment. Neuroscience has provided new insight on how motivation is processed in the brain.  The frameworks discussed above combine motivation theory and neuroscience and offer roadmaps for how HR and talent management professionals can help shape their organisational culture and environment to motivate employees, spur engagement, and boost the bottom line. 

Kimberly  Schaufenbuel

By Kimberly Schaufenbuel

Kimberly is a program director of Executive Development at the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School.

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