The neuroscience of motivation: drive yourself to success

Valentina Kislaya

Written by Valentina Kislaya

To say the science behind motivation is fully developed would be like saying that the Universe ends at the Milky Way. It remains a constant learning curve, and we need to be careful not to repeat our mistakes. Motivation lies behind almost every aspect of our behaviour and there’s always a whole host of factors that motivate our everyday decisions.

At Phoenix Leaders, our goal is to combine scientific research with experiential learning to assist adults in their professional development through understanding how our brain operates in different contexts and environments. We currently offer four modules that are inspired by the real-life challenges our clients and individuals have gone – or are going – through. We also address the issue of not being able to catch up with the speed of organisational tasks or external factors influencing performance, like social relationships.

According to the Cyprus Profile Workforce Report 2018, “well-trained and versatile, the Cypriot workforce is one of the island’s most valuable resources, offering high standards of productivity, technical expertise and professional excellence at reasonable costs for businesses”. In the third quarter of 2018 the unemployment rate was 7.6% of the labour force in Cyprus (according to the results of the Labour Force Survey issued by the statistical service). This means that 33,383 people in the island are competing with one another every day.

My goal is to enforce those looking for a job with a new paradigm that will give them a competitive advantage both at the interview and during their time of employment. A paradigm that will hopefully transform existing thoughts and feelings, best case scenario, causes them to take action, to persevere and to see the process through to the end.

To achieve that, it’s important to understand what motivation looks like from the perspective of the brain. In other words, what is going on through the head of a potential employer when he or she looks at a candidate for a job? That is assuming one accepts the notion that employers are humans.

Well, one of the simplest frameworks that is used when talking about motivation is the idea of costs versus benefits. At a very simplistic level, if the benefits of hiring an individual outweigh the potential costs of all the problems that might stem from it, then more often than not the employer will be motivated to hire that individual. The same also goes for those applying for a job.

But there is a catch: these expected costs and benefits are multifactorial. There are often multiple benefits, or positive gains, that one can extract from achieving a goal: feeling in a positive mood, a sense of satisfaction and self-worth, a feeling of progress, an increase in social status, or more tangible benefits, such as access to training programmes or financial gain.

Similarly, there can be multiple costs. These can include the effort needed to carry out the day to day job; i.e. how much time it will take to get to your office every day, how much money you will have to spend on petrol or public transportation or even the fact that the working hours might cause you to regularly miss out on that all important weekly football game with your friends, or to spend some quality time with your kids before bed.

Of course, the costs and benefits are subjective. In other words, it isn’t the actual costs and benefits that matter; it’s the way we think about these costs and benefits that is important. And this can vary from one person to the next depending on personality, capabilities, attitudes, social values and past experiences. So, what one person might see as a cost, another person might not even consider. Essentially, there isn’t a one size fits all approach to motivation.

At this stage, the obvious question is: then what’s the point of discussing it if there is no ‘magic pill’? And my answer would be: almost perfect CVs aside, the implications of everything listed above are going to define one’s state of mind, both during an interview and in a job.

According to Chantal Burns, in her bestselling book ‘Instant Motivation: The surprising truth behind what really drives top performance’, 81% of people think that their state of mind is very important or crucial in relation to their performance at work. In other words, employers want to see their employees motivated, and in return they will do their part – provide you with the vision and mission of the company, match your salary expectations (fingers crossed!) and give you a certain level of autonomy.

Employers want their employees to succeed. They want them to be good enough. They also want them to motivate themselves, because that will affect their performance, and their performance ultimately affects the bottom line. In a nutshell, a motivated employee who has done his or her homework and then some, is the dream of every employer.

But regardless of whether you view yourself as the perfect hire – or not – it is your mindset which is of real importance.

Essentially, there are two ways to look at people, tasks, relationships and the challenges that come your way.

When having to attend multiple interviews followed by numerous calls with recruiters, it is often easy to get frustrated by the amount of ‘no-thank-you-s’ that come your way from potential employers. It is easy to become discouraged when looking for a job, and the same often goes for those in an existing job if, for example, it does not meet their financial or professional requirements.

Now, if you become discouraged over a lengthy period of time and subsequently let it determine your mood and drive your decisions, this can lead to you developing a fixed mindset. The underlying idea of the fixed mindset is ‘to be good enough’. Your brain is focused on proving that you are good enough, demonstrating your skills to your employer and competing against others.

When you are in this fixed mindset your main concerns will be to look good at your job to your team around you, you are more likely to take the easy route when facing a decision, you will highly likely give up when the going gets tough (without changing anything in your skills or performance) and you will almost always take feedback as criticism.

However; those with a ‘growth mindset’ find setbacks motivating and informative. They treat them like a wake-up call. Their mantra to life is: always improve.

Let’s take for example the following scenarios; your employer has invited you for a difficult conversation that you found absolutely humiliating and makes you want to leave? Your reaction: Actually, this is a great opportunity to do something different in a different industry and develop new skills.

Those with a growth-mindset are always ready to participate in training sessions and develop the skills required to be better. They are only ever competing against themselves: they are competing with the version 1.1, and improving to create a new, updated and upgraded version. This is the growth mindset.

How will it influence your motivation? Let’s look at the ways in which a person with a growth-mindset would approach any task, any relationship challenge and any new area of responsibility: ‘I love a challenge’ (although your knees might be shaking), ‘tell me where I can improve’ (when given a hard feedback you disagree with), ‘this is hard: this is fun’ (when your employer tells you that the company has moved onto a new customer service platform which you are not familiar with), ‘I’ve learnt to be resilient’ (when your probation period has been extended and you really want the job).

Those with a growth mindset find success in doing their best, in learning and improving, and this is exactly what we find in champions.

The checklist below might help you when navigating difficult times and motivate you to develop and maintain a growth mindset.

  1. Manage your time and plan effectively. Time is precious, and wasting it unnecessarily with interruptions or procrastination makes it more difficult to find the time to achieve your actual goals. By planning effectively, you can help reduce the time-cost burden and boost your motivation.
  2. Don’t fall for delay-discounting effects.Remember that goals far in the future are irrationally discounted by our brain as being of lesser value. Don’t allow this inbuilt bias to keep you from being motivated to achieve your longer-term goals.
  3. Break big goals into smaller ones to make them more digestible. Motivation costs are often about effort, be it continuously having to re-write a CV or finishing an annual report. The same thing appliesfor your more ambitious goals to become a managing director, a partner, or a CEO one day. Break them into smaller more manageable ones to help you adjust the way in which you weigh up the costs and benefits.
  4. Capitalise on the restorative power of exercise.Motivation doesn’t mean working flat out until you’ve reached your goal. It means knowing (through planning and awareness) how to get from A to B in such a way that you really get there. So, if it means that you need to take a couple of breaks along the way, take them to recharge, regroup and move forward with more energy than before.
  5. Manage your expectations. If your expectations are wildly unrealistic, then you will be angry and disappointed. Be clear about where you are right now, both personally, mentally and professionally. Thendo the planning.
  6. Don’t let your creativity be constrained by the shackles of a formal office environment. Whether it’s doodling on every notepad in sight or taking walks with colleagues in the fresh air to solve a problem, continuously try different techniques and environments to tackle the issue at hand.
  7. Use extrinsic motivators when necessary. In other words, go talk to the people who will provide you with support and encouragement when you feel like you are about to give up. We’ve all been there, and having a supportive social network that can motivate you when you desperately need it, is essential for your success.

In short, there is no ‘magic pill’ for motivation. The most powerful and yet deceitful tool we all possess is our brain. By constantly learning more about how it works, however much you feel you understand what is motivating you, there will be times when rational thought will be utterly invisible to you.

The value of this paradigm is that it extends beyond the world of work and education. It will be just as relevant for you in your relationships, in your family and generally in life.

It will make you stand out from all of the people who look for someone else to motivate them to succeed. More importantly, it will give you the feeling of control over your life, however elusive this control may appear.