January 8, 2021

On motivation & the chemicals that leaders need for their teams

By Tony Boobier

At the start of a new year, it seems a good time for leaders to check in on motivation. Both their own & how motivated their team is feeling.

We’ve shared before the importance of having a motivational vision for your team & being able to resonate with them when you present.

In this guest blog post from Tony Boobier, he explores what is going on for each of us at a chemical level. If your team is to be motivated this year, are they getting enough endorphins & dopamine? Here’s Tony, a global insurance mentor & author, to explain why this matters…

Motivation & what it means to be human

To some, such as English theologian Cardinal Henry John Newman, humans are a reflection of divinity. To others, we are just a sophisticated combination of ingredients and chemicals. Maybe we are both. Regardless of how you see the world and how you see yourself, especially in these complicated times, the issue of motivation remains one that can be a challenge. 

What is it that motivates us? Scientists suggest that one key element is that of the chemical ‘dopamine’ which is a hormone-forming part of your brain’s reward system. It is associated with pleasurable sensations. In addition, there are ‘serotonins’ which help regulate your mood. ‘Endorphins’ act as a natural pain reliever and ‘oxytocin’ which is generally associated with physical affection. It’s really quite a chemical cocktail.

According to research, we can boost these endorphins and serotonins by getting more sunlight, exercising & laughing.  The answer, at face value, looks simple. Employers should try to encourage their employees to get more fresh air even in winter, to do something strenuous, and to have downtime. Even if laughing by yourself at a joke seems a bit strange. (Interesting that laughing is often seen as a social activity – evidenced by how few people laugh out loud when watching a TV comedy alone.)

Tiny Habits and Skinners Rats

It is the dopamine element that makes us feel better through a sort of chemical reward. Perhaps motivation best works when an action triggers a release of dopamine, allowing an individual to feel better as a result of completing an activity? Maybe the answer to this, from an employer’s point of view, is straightforward. That is, to give the employee a set of small or medium tasks that collectively meet some sort of overriding company objective. Each is individually capable of completion. Satisfactory completion of one exercise will give the employee an appropriate ‘buzz’, and they will be motivated to do another task.

The challenge, therefore, is for the organization or team leader to break down the corporate objective into bite-sized exercises. I suppose it’s a form of the ‘Skinners Rats’ approach to behavioural management – also known as ‘operant conditioning theory’: 

Operant Conditioning Theory

Skinner coined the term Operant Conditioning as a branch of Watsons Classical Conditioning and studied it by conducting experiments using animals, namely rats, placing them in what he called the “Skinner Box.” Operant Conditioning consists of changing behaviour by the use of reinforcements which are given after the desired response is achieved.

Skinner and subsequent psychologists identified that there were downsides to the approach as well. In a work environment, especially one which is remote and isolated, the continuous impact of such tasks can lead to what is increasingly becoming known as Corporate Trauma Stress Disorder (CTSD). This causes an employee to suffer anxiety, loss of sleep, question their judgement and other detrimental effects. 

CTSD and why it should matter to leaders & insurers

Unlike PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) which is often associated with a single major event (although there are 20,000 reported cases per year), CTSD occurs due to the drip drip drip of low levels of employer pressure. Even if that mounting pressure is unwittingly imposed: 

Corporate Traumatic Stress Disorder (CTSD) Is the Scourge of the 21st-Century Workplace – Training Industry

In 2018, the BBC Newsnight program covered allegations of bullying against John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, based on a report that one of his aides had been diagnosed with PTSD after working for him for one year.

Already lawyers are considering whether this might open the door to legal actions by employees against their employers. In their defense, employers might perhaps reasonably argue that whilst the employee might have suffered some limited anxiety as a result of work tasks, it is the employee’s own personal circumstances that have been the major contributing factor. Those were, of course, out of the employer’s control. And after all, they might suggest, ‘if you don’t like the heat, you should get out of the kitchen.

Employer’s insurers are also likely to take a hard line especially giving the potential scale and costs of their exposure. The recent defensive response of the insurance industry to business interruption losses is a worrying indicator. It’s a story which I think will run and run.

So, on the matter of motivation, it’s a tricky one. As an employer might try to ‘do the right thing’ by encouraging their staff, even in bite-sized portions, there might on the other hand be unexpected consequences. Only time will tell.

Reinventing work for greater motivation

Half of the answer perhaps is one of encouraging the employee to motivate themselves. Enabling them to set their own work pattern & targets, albeit that these are aligned to the wider ambition of the organization. Smaller organizations and start-ups probably already do this intuitively. So staff members collectively have a shared vision of what needs to be done to achieve success. 

Elsewhere, corporate employees may increasingly need to develop a new self-fulfilling pattern of work, much the same way that the self-employed have almost always needed to do. My personal dopamine ‘shot’ comes from fulfilling tasks that sit on a list that I have usually created the night before. Each fulfilled task gives me a subtle chemical reward that encourages me to go forward including, it must be said, to write blogs like this one. 

The other, equally important half of the answer is to be able to break down corporate objectives into manageable chunks. Think of a corporate objective as a series of interconnected and interdependent projects. One key skill will be how those projects are distributed and coordinated. This new approach may become ultimately one of the new and critical roles of ‘new’ management. 

What helps you maintain motivation?

In summary, motivation is likely to remain an operational and personal challenge for many, at least in the short term. A better understanding of the tricks and pitfalls of motivation may help in the long run. But even in difficult times, trying to do something with all its incumbent risks is probably better than not trying. Doing nothing is surely not an option. To return to where I started, here is Cardinal Newman’s advice…

Nothing would be done at all if a man waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault with it.”

Cardinal Henry John Newman

Thanks to Tony for sharing his thoughts so regularly with us. I hope that helped you take a fresh perspective on this perennial challenge for leaders.

Do you have any wisdom to share on the topic of motivation? What has helped you as a data leader maintain motivation at the start of a new year? What is helping to encourage motivation in your data, analytics, or insight team? Worth thinking about those questions even if you don’t share on here – but I’d love to hear from more leaders on this topic.