At some point, every leader has dealt with a person — or, worse, a group of people — who has lost motivation. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? As much as we’ve been there ourselves, sometimes it’s hard to sympathize with others who are disengaged from work and unproductive as a result. Sometimes, we view their unhappiness as a bug in their mental makeup — and, therefore, we think they should be able to suck it up and snap out of it.
Although it’s easy to fall into this mindset as a leader, this type of thinking is counterproductive and it ignores the underlying reasons why people lose their passion for what they do (or never find it to begin with).
In order to get at the crux of the problem, it’s crucial to understand that as humans we want to feel motivated and to find meaning in the things that we do. It’s part of our biology. In fact, there’s a part of our brains called the seeking system that creates the natural impulses to learn new skills and take on challenging but meaningful tasks. When we follow these urges, we receive a jolt of dopamine — a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure — which make us want to engage in these activities even more. And, when our seeking systems are activated, we feel more motivated, purposeful, and zestful. We feel more alive.
Exploring, experimenting, learning — this is the way we’re supposed to live and work. The problem is, too many workers aren’t able to partake in these activities because the way our organizations are run is preventing them from doing so.
Take Tom, a website developer whom I met on a consulting assignment at an accounting firm. When Tom was hired, fresh out of college, he was excited because he had been told that there were opportunities for learning and growth. But the honeymoon didn’t last long. “I soon found out my supervisor had no time or patience for experimenting,” he told me. “He was more concerned with protocol than personal development. It’s like he’s afraid of me trying new things because it might not go exactly as planned. It doesn’t leave me much room for learning.”
At first, Tom wasn’t deterred. He worked to improve some processes and tried to inject some personality into his work. But since Tom’s boss was under pressure to meet a number of website metrics, she didn’t have the flexibility to implement his ideas. As the weeks turned into months, Tom’s work became routine and boring, and he shut off as a result.
We shouldn’t blame Tom for his reaction — because he reacted the way we’re all designed to react. Shutting down is our body’s way of telling us that we were meant do better things. To keep exploring and learning. This is our biology — it is a part of our adaptive unconscious to know that our human potential is being wasted.
They key for leaders is to find ways to activate employee’s seeking systems. But how do you do it? If you’re like Tom’s boss, there are likely organizational roadblocks in the way — many of which are probably beyond your control. It’s not often possible to ignore performance metrics or overcome policies and bureaucratic red-tape.
Despite these difficulties, it is possible for leaders to activate their employees’ seeking systems without a large overhaul to organization-wide policies and culture. And, in my experience working with leaders across the globe, you can reach business objectives while improving the lives of employees. There are three small but consequential nudges that trigger employees’ seeking systems: encourage them to play to their strengths, creating opportunities to experiment, and helping them personalize the purpose of the work.
Philosophers have been telling us for millennia that people have an innate drive to show others who they really are, yet somehow organizational life often runs afoul of the human desire for self-expression. Even today, when we extol the virtues of creativity and innovation, we still see bureaucratic job titles, inflexible roles, and standardized evaluation systems that generate anxiety instead of excitement and self-expression.
None of us wants to just perform pre-programmed behaviors again and again. We have a deep desire to use our unique skills and perspectives to make our own decisions about how to help our teams succeed. When people are prompted to think about their best traits, their seeking systems are activated. Research shows that when people identify and use their unique strengths, they feel more alive.
Leaders can help employees be their best selves without changing the frames of their jobs. For example, in a study I conducted with colleagues, we found that asking new hires to write down and share stories about times they were at their best made them feel more comfortable about being themselves around co-workers, and that their unique strengths were valued. Results showed that newcomers onboarded this way made customers happier and were much less likely to quit in the future.
Employees want to be valued for the unique skills and perspectives they bring to the table, and the more you can re-enforce this, and remind them of their role in the company at large, the better. And it doesn’t take much. At both Make-A-Wish and Novant Health, for example, leaders encouraged employees to create their own job titles, a move which prompted people to highlight their unique contributions to their teams.
A second way to activate people’s seeking systems is to create an experimental “safe zone” that includes play and supportive social bonding. Play not only stimulates the seeking system, it also pushes anxiety and fear back into its place.
Positive emotions are important in their own right, of course. But it’s not just that play “feels good.” Experimental safe zones create intrinsic motivations, which are much more powerful than extrinsic motivations because they unleash creativity. Firms are more agile when they encourage employees to think up new approaches and try them out, and then get feedback about how the environment responded to their ideas.
The research is clear that framing change and innovation as a chance to experiment and learn is better than framing it as a performance situation, which makes people anxious, risk-averse, and less willing to persist through difficulty. For example, employees in a white-goods manufacturing plant in Italy learned about lean manufacturing by playing with Legos rather than cooktops. They then experimented with transforming their own production line using the new techniques. In two weeks, the production team made lean manufacturing their own, reducing internal defects by 30% and improving productivity by 25%.
The feeling of purpose doesn’t only come from curing diseases and improving the world. The feeling of purpose also ignites when we can see the cause and effect between our inputs and our team’s progress. For example, sense of purpose soars when we can offer insights to our team about the environment and what might work better. Likewise, we feel a sense of purpose when we can experience firsthand how our unique contributions help other people and allow the team to progress.
For example, when leaders brought scholarship students into a call center to thank the fundraisers for the money they raised, the fundraisers became more persistent and made a lot more calls on their shifts. And, because they were more personally connected to the why of their work, each call was substantially more effective — they raised an average of $9,704.58 versus $2,459.44 for fundraisers who did not talk to a scholarship student.
Keep in mind that instilling a sense of purpose doesn’t work when it is a “one-off.” It can’t just be a speech by senior leaders who speak during town hall meetings about why their products help customers. Purpose works best when employees get to interact directly with the people they are affecting with their work. For example, employees at Microsoft are encouraged to spend time out with clients, understanding their problems and issues first hand. One account manager spent a week out on the street with police officers, for example, trying to understand when and where remote data could help them. Another account manager spent two days in a hospital to understand what it would really mean to become paperless.
It doesn’t take much to light up our seeking systems. For leaders, the upshot is the potential is already flowing right under the surface. And it doesn’t take charm, or motivational speeches to tap into that energy — all it takes is a concerted effort to infuse self-expression, experimentation, and personalized purpose into all that we do.
Dan Cable is professor of organizational behavior at London Business School. His new book is Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do.