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Motivating Teams: What You Can Learn from Science

You don't need money. Here are four motivational techniques from professor Uri Alon, a molecular cell biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science.


We all read--and I've written--a lot about motivating people. But we usually try to learn from ourselves, and from other businesses. That narrow perspective can be limiting. So recently I've been interested in how other sectors drive high performance.

In science, there are rarely any big financial rewards. Competition is fierce, with more and more post-graduates seeking limited positions and funding. Anybody who would even be considered to do scientific research has to be smart, well-educated, and dedicated, so the bar is set very high. To cap it all off, the failure rate is enormous; many Ph.D students fail to get academic positions and those who do often labor for decades without much in the way of applause or recognition. Scientists also rarely enjoy lavish perks of corporate life: business class travel, swanky hotels, client dinners. The standard scientific conference is long on Post-It notes and short on glitz.

So how do you keep a group like that motivated? Scientists don't get leadership training; they're not taught how to manage teams. So they learn the hard way: by experience. At the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, investigator Uri Alon did what you'd expect a scientist he do. He read a lot of psychological research about motivation. And he paid attention to his own performance--successes and mistakes alike. Below are some of his conclusions.

1. Build competence gradually.

We all want to hit home runs but it's a bad idea to set tasks that are simply too daunting. Sink-or-swim might sound dramatic but it's a risky strategy. When Alon asked his firt graduate student to rewire a commercial fluorimeter, instead of being thrilled by the (difficult) challenge, the student had no idea how to start. Instead, Alon concluded, he'd have done better to break the task into achievable (albeit challenging) steps. Achieving each one builds confidence which, in turn, drives motivation.

2. Don't help too much.

Smart people cherish autonomy, so Alon says you shouldn't rush in to solve problems your employees are still working on. Just because you know the answer and giving it might be faster doesn't mean you should jump in. Alon described one graduate student who came out with the perfect request: "I have a question, but before I tell you, please promise not to solve it immediately by yourself. I want time to think about it." The skills you learn yourself are internalized and drive both confidence and expertise.

3. Be social.

At his lab meetings, Alon devotes the first half hour of the two-hour weekly meeting to 'non-science' topics. He asks who's absent, which shows he notices and cares. By celebrating birthdays, discussing movies or theatre or the news, he gives his people time to get to know each other as people, and not just scientists. Then, when one team member presents a talk, each of others adopts a role: reviewer, referee, funder. The goal is to create a sense of connectedness so people want to help each other. "Our connection to a community and a culture provides us context and empathy during our struggles, acknowledgement during our successes," he says. Never forget that people are rarely loyal to companies or organizations; they are loyal to one another.

4. Make assignments personal.

The hardest part about studying science is deciding what to focus on. A problem that is too hard can't be solved until or unless new research provides the information needed to crack it. A problem that's too easy won't yield valuable insights. So how does Alon choose the projects for his team? He asks students to identify their talents and their passions. Then he looks at where those overlap with the objectives of the lab overall. In other words, each assignment is a rich intersection of personal capabilities with professional needs. There's no point making people do work they don't care about, and no value in hiring passionate people without harnessing their energy.

What's so striking about Alon's conclusions is that there is no mention of money or intimidation, threats, or bonuses. The greatest reward of science--status, prestige--isn't Alon's to bestow. What he can offer is a community dedicated to personal and professional development. It turns out that is a great deal indeed.

Last updated: Jul 23, 2012

MARGARET HEFFERNAN is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2011, she published her third book, Willful Blindness.

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