ATD Blog

Employee Motivation: The Neuroscience Connection

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Historically, organizations have believed that compensation is the primary motivator for results, but scientific evidence suggests that the link between money, motivation, and performance is much more intricate. A new UNC Executive Development white paper, Motivation on the Brain – Applying the Neuroscience of Motivation in the Workplace, discusses the science behind motivation and why it is important in the workplace. 

Brain Triggers 

Kimberly Schaufenbuel, program director at UNC Executive Development, explains that with the burgeoning field of neuroscience and advanced tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging, there is scientific evidence that the source of motivation is all in the head. Specifically, “dopamine, long thought to be the happy neurotransmitter, is actually the reward and punishment transmitter.” 

The white paper distills how this works: Motivation is created in the brain when dopamine is released and makes its way to an area of the brain called “nucleas accumens,” which triggers feedback that predicts whether something good or bad is about to happen. “That prediction, in turn, triggers the motivation to respond; to act to minimize a predicted threat (the bad) or to maximize a predicted reward (the good),” writes Schaufenbuel.

Behavioral Drivers 

Schaufenbuel goes onto outline the work of Harvard Professors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria, who blended motivation theory with neuroscience to describe four fundamental patterns of human behavior: 1) drive to acquire, 2) drive to defend, 3) drive to bond, and 4) drive to learn. 


Why does this matter? “When HR and talent managers understand what drives a person’s behavior in this context, they can design systems, policies, procedures, and practices that will appeal to each driver,” writes Schaufenbuel. She reminds talent managers, however, that they must think holistically when taking actions to address each driver. For instance, “fulfilling the drive to bond has the most effect on employee commitment, but other drivers will influence how strong that bonding is.” 

Meanwhile, the white paper states that job design is a critical factor when looking to appeal to the drive to learn. “HR and talent management professionals must ensure that jobs are designed in such a way that they are meaningful to employees and foster a sense of contribution to the organization.” For example, when The Royal Bank of Scotland was merging with the National Westminster Bank, it heavily invested in a state-of-the-art business school facility to which employees had access. “This move not only helped fill the drive to bond, it also challenged employees to think more broadly about how they could contribute to making a difference for co-workers, customers, and investors.”  

Social Needs 


Schaufenbuel also describes David Rock’s SCARF model, which also combines motivational theory with neuroscience. Based on this model, “a job should not be viewed as a business transaction—do the work and get paid—but rather as a part of a social system in which the brain is rewarded (or punished) based on how well the business environment is meeting an employee’s need for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness.” 

Rock advises organizations design motivation strategies that appeal to the social aspect of the brain to dvelop a sense of affiliation. In other words, appealing to SCARF will likely boost teamwork, belonging, camaraderie, and knowledge sharing. According to Rock, “social motivators like these will activate dopamine in the brain and trigger the brain’s reward systems.” 

Bottom Line 

Schaufenbuel concludes that combining motivation theory and neuroscience provides organizations with roadmaps for how to shape culture to motivate employees, spur engagement, and boost the bottom line. “This has important implications for HR and talent management professionals, because along with these neuroscience discoveries comes the realization that the brain can be retrained to increase a person’s motivation for rewards—and therefore engagement, employee productivity, retention, and more,” writes Schaufenbuel. 

To learn more, download Motivation on the Brain – Applying the Neuroscience of Motivation in the Workplace.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently sources and authors content for TD Magazine and CTDO, as well as manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs. Contact her at [email protected]

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.