Understanding the science of motivation

Owning Innovation

Science and psychology have established that engaging and empowering employees is critical to motivating them. Organisations that own innovation understand what inspires staff and create a supportive culture to deliver it.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated technology integration into our working lives, but it could affect organisational creativity and stifle collaboration, experts warn.

New technology such as artificial intelligence and automation can free us from menial tasks, but too much can affect worker wellbeing, distancing us from colleagues and inhibiting innovation.

So, what can leaders do to improve the situation? “One way that policymakers or firms could address negative impacts is to let workers know what’s going on, empower them or involve them in the process,” says Georgia State University’s co-author Luísa Nazareno.

Leaders must find ways to engage and inspire staff while developing supporting systems that encourage innovation. It starts and ends with culture.

Creating a collaborative culture

We can define motivation as the psychological process that “generates complex processes of goal-directed thoughts and behaviours“. It’s a combination of internal drivers and external environmental factors that affect how intense and persistent such behaviour is.

Individual motivation is intrinsically linked to corporate culture, academics have established. We’re inspired to do more if we’re in an organisation that values our contributions from the boardroom to the backroom.

Leaders play a central role in defining this culture, fostering an openness that supports the free exchange of ideas. Those senior executives who encourage their employees to speak up create teams that are “more effective and resilient in the face of unexpected situations”, scientists have found.

By supporting employees to take risks, speak up, and be open with ideas, leaders build more resilient teams that can better deal with the rapidly changing business environment.

But they must set boundaries too, advises Forbes Councils Member Jenn Lofgren. Understanding what can be changed and what can’t, and what behaviour is acceptable and what isn’t, is crucial at focusing effort and attention where it’s needed. In addition, establishing boundaries builds trust and sharpens focus.

Much has been written about millennials and Gen-Z’s changing priorities, but it seems workers of all ages value a supportive culture. Leaders can have confidence that, if they do the right things, they’ll be able to engage and inspire employees of all ages.

Technology as an enabler

The shift to hybrid and home working has removed many of us from the office. But distance can damage communication, workers in the US, Canada, Mexico and the UK have found. Unplanned interactions have fallen by a quarter, and the ability to maintain social relationships has taken a hit, too.

An analysis of the communication data of over 60,000 US Microsoft employees found that “firm-wide remote work caused the collaboration network of workers to become more static and siloed”. They warn that the shift to asynchronous communication “may make it harder for employees to acquire and share new information across the network”.

Too often, businesses view new technology and software as the solution without focusing on what’s important: your people. The key to using software and systems is that team demands define the change, not technology providers.

Developing a culture of creativity and a company full of resilient teams provides the foundations for the successful assimilation of new technology. In addition, it ensures that any investment you make benefits your business rather than draining your bank balance.

Provide feedback

Collaboration is an ongoing process that relies upon continual communication. Why? Without feedback, we all tend to fall back into old habits.

“The longer that an individual performs a task, the worse their performance tends to be,” said Matthew Robison, UT Arlington assistant professor of psychology and author of a new paper exploring the importance of goal-setting in the learning process.

Providing feedback is the key to ensuring long-term engagement in learning, found Robison. In contrast, financial incentives, such as cash bonuses, had little impact on performance.

What can leaders take from this research? “If you want to encourage people to maintain focus on a task, whether it be learning or job-related, or if you are designing something that you want people to engage with, giving feedback about their performance is a very powerful motivator,” says Robison.

Future performance

Science and psychology can offer us incredible insights into the performance of individuals and organisations. It can also help us to define the leadership skills required for modern managers.

While motivation must come from individuals, creating an organisational culture where a person, team, or department can communicate and collaborate is crucial.

These academic insights, coupled with industry knowledge and experience, provide the building blocks and the blueprint for creating a better and more collaborative business.