Once hired, employees know they're pretty much gaurenteed a regular paycheck. But how can you make equally sure you get something useful from their efforts? Part of the answer comes from two things: giving them a compelling vision of where your company is headed and hiring people who fit with your values.

But that won't be enough unless you find a way to motivate them. How do you do that well? One way is to do with a twist what motivates developing children -- after all your employees were all children once. Harvard Graduate School of Education came up with some useful tips through research that looked into how children's brains operate when they're motivated and what holds them back.

The Harvard research discovered two sources of motivation: the pursuit of reward and the avoidance of punishment. More specifically, the researchers defined "approach motivation" as a force that "steers us toward a reward, and avoidance motivation, which prompts us to avoid damage." While both are important, the researchers argue that they should be in balance and if not, they can lead to "impulse-control problems, anxiety, or depression."

Here are five ways you can apply their research to motivate your people.

1. Elicit curiosity and encourage exploration.

As a leader, you might think of yourself as a caring adult seeking to shape the right balance between approach and avoidance motivation.

You ought to provide positive feedback on your peoples' natural tendencies -- which for children include exploration, play, mastery, and success, according to the researchers. (I still operate according to many of these tendencies -- though my idea of play has changed since I was a child.) 

If you do, you can build trust with your people so they have a clear idea of the small number of things they should not do -- thus freeing them to explore and follow their other natural tendencies. In short, setting clear boundaries and encouraging your people to pursue their natural drive for mastery and success will boost their motivation.

2. Don't rely on incentives.

Ultimately, your people should not be waiting for the next reward or punishment to motivate them. Such extrinsic feedback can help jumpstart your peoples' intrinsic motivation. You can do that, according to the researchers, by balancing intrinsically motivating activities -- like creating problem solving -- with positive feedback. 

For example, the leaders of many companies I interviewed for my latest book, Scaling Your Startup, hold regular company-wide meetings which give public recognition to workers who do things -- like go the extra mile to make customers happy -- that embody the company's culture. This extrinsic reward helps build intrinsic motivation for their peers to act according to the company's values.

3. Remind your people that success is possible.

People who believe that a goal is unattainable are unlikely to be motivated. A growth mindset -- "the belief that we can change and improve through practice, and that our talents and skills aren't fixed" --  helps motivate people, according to the research.

4. Prioritize social interaction.

Interacting with others motivates people by releasing "natural opioids -- dopamine and serotonin -- that activate the brain's reward system." Indeed, the researchers cited a study of babies which found that they learned more quickly  "through face-to-face interactions with a caregiver" than by watching a video of that caregiver.

My work with undergraduate and MBA students reinforces the power of social interaction. To take advantage of that force, I balance interactive discussion of key concepts with group work during the class. I challenge them to apply the concepts we discussed to solve and present their solution to problems. The social interaction boosts their energy level and motivation and deepens their understanding of the concepts.

5. Remember that we all have different intrinsic motivators.

Based on their genes and life experience, different people have different motivators, according to the researchers. The Harvard report notes that a child who is intrinsically motivated to play sports will respond well to constructive criticism from a coach while another student will be discouraged by criticism and respond more effectively to praise.

Surely this is true of your employees. You should learn enough about them to strike the right balance between approach and avoidance motivation for each of your direct reports. And you should encourage them to do the same with the people in their departments.

With the right twist, these five ways to motivate can boost the motivation of your employees.

Published on: Jun 19, 2019
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