Three Reasons that “What Matters” Motivates

by | Aug 31, 2015

How many cathedrals are enough? After traveling over Europe I had enough of soaring cathedrals with vast interiors filled with church art and relics. But, my husband, born and raised a Catholic, has a cathedral fetish. And so it was that we walked around the outside of the commanding Bayeux Cathedral. Patiently, I plodded along into the dim, cavernous interior and moseyed between the imposing columns each one far too big to wrap my arms around. Mmmmrrrrr. A low-pitched sound was somewhere inside. Mmmmrrrr. What was it? We had heard singing, chanting, and chamber orchestras; you name it, but never a sound like this. Then, tucked under one of the imposing, stone columns was a small, hunched-over woman in a faded dress vacuuming the base of the column…using a tiny household vacuum cleaner with a dusting attachment. Mmmrrrr. She stretched the short cord to reach around the unflinching column. Finished, she moved to the next of dozens and dozens and dozens of other columns. It would be a long day. She would have been far better off with an industrial vacuum from somewhere like the Vacuumshop, yet, it didn’t seem like drudgery to her. Something seemed to create a deeper connection to that cathedral and her role in it. A clean column mattered to her.

Much has been written about motivation, incentives, financial compensation, and recognition. But frequently we overlook a potent reward generator. It’s connecting with “what matters” for the individual. How can you use the “what matters” motivator as part of your leadership skill set?

It helps to know what happens in the brain that causes “what matters” to be a powerful motivator. The brain has a reward pathway composed of several structures (such as, the ventral striatum) and, when activated, it releases dopamine. Dopamine is the feel-good neurotransmitter. Research provides clues, based on the part of the brain activated in studies, on many non-monetary activities that generate dopamine. Here are three that you may not typically consider but can be a motivator.

Link to Values. I worked in the federal government for more than twenty years. We had our share of under-motivated staff and we had highly dedicated staff. These dedicated individuals showed up every day to do their best inside a bureaucracy that would wear anyone down. Why? If you asked them they would say, “Because it matters.” They valued doing work that made a difference for others. When an activity synchronizes with a person’s value system, the activity is inherently motivating. Simon Sinek writes about the power of finding your “why.” When you launch a new task, create a new team, how can each individual find meaning that fits their value system? It’s worth a conversation. It is the astute leader who asks, “What do you care about? How can this new activity contribute to the things that matter to you?” And help them make that connection. It creates an intrinsic motivator.

Good Reputation. We want a good reputation with our co-workers and others. Social reward is processed in the same part of the brain as monetary reward. For example, research by Izuma, Saito and Sadato shows that test subjects felt significantly happier when others in the study awarded them high social standing. Their good standing in the eyes of others created happiness. At the next opportunity, recognize someone who helped others in the office. Maybe they pitched in on the big project with the short deadline. Maybe they came to the rescue of someone was over-whelmed with tasks. There is probably someone in your office who is a good listener and for the staff. That valuable role provides a safe way to remove anxiety from the office. Tell that person that you recognize their value to other members of the staff. Acknowledgement of their social value will release a rush of dopamine and create a happy dance in their brain.

Give to others. Money, status, meaning, and reputation stimulate the reward center in the brain as does giving to others. In an insightful study, researchers discovered that participants’ reward center was activated when they gave proceeds from a small financial windfall to others of their choosing. Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton elaborate in their book, “Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending.” As they found, helping others helps our brain. Next time you consider a financial reward, allow the employee to tell the office about their favorite charity and how to contribute either financially or as a volunteer. Perhaps the office offers a donation in the name of the employee or you take a day off for everyone to volunteer. That benefits the charity and it adds to the reputation of the person being rewarded.

I imagine that the lady vacuuming the columns in the cathedral wasn’t aware of the neuroscience, but I also expect that she experienced all three of these rewards. She likely valued her church; liked her reputation of keeping the cathedral spotless; and by her actions she gave back to the congregation and many others like me who paused to admire the cathedral. Her brain was definitely doing a happy dance. We, too, can learn from the vacuuming woman and find what matters to us and to our staff. To paraphrase a researcher: management by objectives is far more limited than management by aspiration.


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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