This is Your Brain on Dopamine

This is Your Brain on Dopamine

The Neuroscience Behind Motivation

It’s a question that’s as old as time: What is it that makes one person a super high achiever and another person a complete slacker? The ability to motivate employees is one of the most salient attributes of great managers, and without question, having an innate sense of motivation is the key to personal achievement and success. But don’t we all want to be successful? Don’t we all want to set goals, achieve things, and reap the rewards of hard work? According to science, apparently not. A national research study conducted by Gallup reports that an astounding 70% of employees are not working to their full potential. Within that group, 52% of people are just going through the motions at work – doing barely enough to get the job done. The remaining 18% are actively disengaged at work, acting out in a myriad of negative ways that reveal attitudes of indifference, frustration, and even sabotage. Obviously, low motivation at work has negative consequences, but not only because of the toxic impact it has on corporate culture. Under achievement in the workplace also has a devastating impact on the bottom line. Gallup estimates that under achievement cost the American economy somewhere between $450 billion – $500 billion in 2012 alone. With dollars like that on left on the table, it’s clear that it is in every employers’ best interest to maximize motivation whenever and however possible. But how do we do that? If the problem is as pervasive as the Gallup study suggests, how can managers and leaders turn the tide? To begin with, it’s helpful to understand the biology behind motivation, and science has proven that it starts in the brain.

The Dope on Dopamine

The human brain is a system of synapses and neurotransmitters that send and receive chemical messages that control our actions and emotions. The transmitter that plays a central role in motivation is dopamine. In Psychology Today, dopamine is credited with helping to regulate movement, attention, learning, and emotional responses. Additionally, it enables human beings to not only to recognize potential rewards, but also take action to move toward them. Dopamine is commonly referred to as the “happy hormone” (even though it isn’t a hormone at all.) Rather, it’s a sensation transmitter that is typically triggered by experiences of joy, pleasure and satisfaction. In other words, dopamine lets us know when something makes us feel good, and if the behaviour we’re engaged in provides a big enough “feel good” trigger, the more likely we are to be motivated to engage in that behaviour again. See where we’re going here? In order to get the most productivity out of our employees – in order to properly motivate them, we’ve got to figure out what triggers that rush of dopamine in each of our people. Discover what gives your top performers a dopamine-filled rush of satisfaction and they’ll exceed their current performance standards. Find out what gives your underachievers that kind of rush, and watch your organization’s productivity (and profitability) skyrocket. Everyone is motivated by something different. Some employees are motivated by money, others by opportunities for growth, others by new experiences, others by recognition or notoriety – the list goes on and on. Most modern management theorists believe that virtually everyone is motivated by appreciation – the feeling that we matter as people, and the work we’re doing is valued and important – so acknowledging someone for a job well done goes a long way in motivating them to continue the desired behaviour. A lot of managers believe that showing appreciation to employees means offering some sort of grand gesture – a tangible reward of some kind. But human behaviour studies reveal that’s not necessarily the case. Simple praise for a job well done is most often an ample reward in itself – a spontaneous one-minute discussion when managers catch an employee doing something right, pull that employee aside and tell him or her that their contribution and talent is valued.

Dopamine has Dual Personality

Interestingly, studies on the affects of dopamine shed light on the notion that it can play a role in demotivation as well as motivation. A team of Vanderbilt scientists mapped the brains of underachievers and overachievers. What they found was that people with a willingness to work hard had high levels of dopamine, particularly in the striatum and prefrontal cortex of the brain – two areas known to impact motivation and reward. Among slackers, low levels of dopamine were present, particularly found in the anterior insula, an area of the brain involved in emotion and risk perception. What does that mean? UConn Researcher John Salamone explains: “Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it [the effect of dopamine on motivation] has more to do with cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself.” How can we trick our brains into producing dopamine to encourage increased motivation?
  • Set Small Achievable Goals and Record Accomplishments. Nothing is more demotivating than considering a monumental task that you’re not sure you’ll ever complete. As the saying goes, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Break big goals down into bite sized tasks and check them off your list as you accomplish them.
  • Share Results with Others. Sharing how your work is going with others encourages feedback, which can be extremely motivating. It also keeps you accountable – especially if you make a commitment to finishing a task by a certain day publicly.
  • Set Micro-Deadlines. Rather than committing to a big final deadline for your work, try setting small incremental deadlines that will guide you toward the finished project.
  • Envision Being Finished. Keep your eye on the prize and imagine how great it will feel once you get to that point. Visualization is powerful method for manifesting reality (everyone from pro athletes to top CEOs will tell you so) so keep a positive, open mindset about tackling what you want to do.
Natasha Robbie is an independent Marketing Specialist, Content Developer, and Leadership Coach living in Calgary, Alberta.

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