Flip the Switches in the Brain: 5 Ways to Motivate Your Team, Staff or Client

by | Feb 7, 2017


The brain has two important electrical circuits for motivation. One activates feelings of reward and the other, feelings of threat. Whether staff, teams or clients, the reward circuit is the more reliable, long-term motivator of behavior. Unfortunately, the threat circuitry (via the amygdala) is more easily activated. The good news is that you can, with practice, consciously activate the reward circuit (via the ventral striatum). Here are five switches —the five Cs —that you can flip to activate the brain’s reward circuitry.

Control versus lost control. The brain likes to feel in control, so give others a sense of control to activate reward circuitry.  It doesn’t have to be full control. Let’s say your team resists a new process. To overcome resistance, activate reward feelings.  What part of the process can you relinquish control?  Can the team design the implementation plan, or evaluation methods? For a client who is unconvinced of the merits of a project, how can you engage their sense of control?  Can they set a trial period, the parameters for moving forward, the parameters to pull the plug?  What are creative ways to give over real, partial or perceived control?

Certainty versus uncertainty. The brain wants the world to be as it expects. If the brain is certain of the future, it feels comfortable. Uncertainty triggers alarms.

Situations that create a sense of uncertainty include: lack of transparency, no information shared from management, no performance feedback, leadership instability, ad hoc policies. How can you create certainty? For example, for those in government changing administrations create uncertainty. Will the new leadership be easy to work with; will they be supportive? Even without the answers you provide certainty by saying, “You may be concerned about the in-coming administration.  I don’t know them but here’s what I do know. We do good work and we will prepare information to clearly and concisely explain our work.”

Find ways to enhance feelings of certainty: Establish a clear timeline for a project; provide feedback to staff; be transparent; articulate a clear vision; or implement repeatable processes.

Connection versus disconnection. The brain craves connection to others.  In fact, research shows that we demonstrate more empathy, trust and cooperation with those to whom we feel connected. You naturally want to connect with those like you. But, there are in-groups and out-groups. Race and gender are simple examples, but it goes further.  Do you have multiple offices? Has your company merged? You may notice reluctant collaboration across locations or companies.

Thankfully, the brain accepts new connections.  Teams create connection by setting common goals, naming the team, establishing performance norms, and conducting team activities. For individual connection, seek out commonalities.  The gruffest colleague may soften when connecting about kids, sports or a shared hobby.

Clout versus lost clout. The brain really likes it feeling important, and it’s not just about raises or promotions. Think about circumstances that make you feel important: the really-big boss calls you by name; your input is requested; you are invited to lunch with the inner-circle; the client tells your boss about your good work.  In any of these, your brain does a happy dance. For your top performers, send a hand-written thank you note, go for coffee together, give a shout-out in a meeting, offer a career-development conversation.  Giving attention feels like clout. For clients, call them for input on a key decision; be explicit about the positive influence they had on the work. Remember, sincerity is key.

Consistency versus inconsistency. staff or clients, we are sensitive to being fairness and consistency.  You don’t want a client thinking, “They didn’t do that for me!” Morale is damaged when staff mutter, “She’s playing favorites again. John gets to do anything he wants!” The threat circuit is on fire and productivity plummets. People notice inconsistency. Policies and procedures are important to ensure fair treatment. A clear, replicable rationale for unique applications is key.  If you deviate from the policy, share your thought process so others understand. Take steps to ensure you are fair and consistent.

Keep the 5 Cs in view to remind you to activate the brain’s reward circuit. You will be rewarded with higher productivity and collaboration, and that’s something to be motivated about.


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Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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