The Motivated Workplace: Drive, Motivation, and the Future of Work


Zappos distributed authority among all the employees with the intent of promoting everyone to be the leader of their own selected roles, enabling them to take part in much more effective problem solving and creativity. Instead of an organization of employees, they created a place of innovative entrepreneurs. In turn, each employee shares the same higher purpose and goals of the larger organization, which keeps everyone accountable for their part. While it may sound like a risky proposition, productivity went up, almost across the board. Employee engagement went up, satisfaction increased, and turnover went down. It might be the start of a professionally autonomous revolution.

Mastery: The Desire To Get Better And Better At Something That Matters

People tend to work best when they’re working toward something great — whether it’s a new idea, or turning an impossible task into something possible. That’s why the pursuit of mastery has become essential to making one’s way in today’s economy. It’s a mindset that requires engagement, discipline, and thinking of fresh solutions. Not only have companies changed their workplace to encourage mastery, but more and more companies now offer nontraditional training programs that tap into employee interests, passions, and career goals.

Purpose: The Urge To Do Better By Ourselves And Our World

Millennials are hell-bent on finding a career with a sense of purpose. It’s their thing. Part of this equation is self-purpose and finding a company for which they’re a good fit within the organizational puzzle. Is the work they’re doing relevant? Do their personal goals align with what the company is doing? The other half of the purpose equation is working for a company that’s making a compelling impact on the world. Researchers are finding that a career in today’s world is less about being a means to an end. Instead, the most deeply motivated people are working in careers with a cause greater and more enduring than themselves. I’ll prove it.

Let’s take a trip back to the mid-1990s, before Google became a verb. Microsoft started an encyclopedia called Encarta. They paid professionals to write thousands of articles about a range of topics. Writers, editors, and managers of Encarta were well-compensated and the entire process worked like a well-oiled machine.

Fast-forward a decade later, and you may remember a different model of the encyclopedia that took off. It was a little thing called Wikipedia. What’s important to note is that no one was paid a single penny to write and publish on Wikipedia. You just did it because you liked to do it. What surprised economists was how successful this free model had become. Encarta and Wikipedia are true examples of intrinsic motivators versus extrinsic motivators. Dangling carrots and sticks versus the intrinsic rewards of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Which side prevails? Intrinsic motivation, autonomy, mastery, and purpose — in a knockout.

Motivation And The Brain

The prefrontal cortex — a part of the brain responsible for executive functions, decision-making, and higher cognitive tasks — is also largely responsible for the root of our motivation. On a cellular level, motivation is operated by the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is the feel-good hormone known for promoting desire. There’s an increase in dopamine release when we’re doing something that provides us with pleasure. It also nags your brain to remember the experience you’re having, to make it happen more often.

Studies have been able to confirm the link between motivation and dopamine in a number of interesting ways. In one example, behavioral neuroscientist Dr. John Salamone conducted a study with rats who were given the choice of either one pile of food that was easy to access or a pile of food twice the size, but behind a small fence. The rats with lowered levels of dopamine almost always took the easy way out, choosing the small pile instead of jumping the fence for a greater reward. Rats with more dopamine went for the larger pile of food despite the obstacle.

In another study published in the journal Neuroscience Research, researchers presented people with hypothetical situations of intrinsically motivational activities, such as participating in a fun project or reading a book they liked. Participants were also given situations that offered hypothetical extrinsic incentives — writing an extra-credit paper, or working on a project for some extra cash. Researchers used functional MRI scans to look at the activity of the brain while each participant decided whether or not the task interested them.

During the decisions that involved intrinsic reasons for choosing an activity, researchers observed heightened activity in the insular cortex — a part of the brain responsible for processing emotions. On the other side, extrinsic-motivated decisions sparked activity in the posterior cingulate cortex, which has been associated with processing rewards, attention, and certain memory tasks.

What’s interesting is that the more we study this area of behavior, the more science is uncovering how we recruit different parts of the brain and neural activity when making decisions based on intrinsic rewards versus extrinsic ones. Intrinsic motivation continuously proves to be largely emotion-based, driving us to do activities we truly enjoy.

You see, as long as the basic costs of living are met, the amount of money we make isn’t what ultimately makes us happy in our jobs. It’s whether our work fulfills the three essential elements of autonomy and self-direction, mastery at something that interests us, and purpose in doing something bigger than us. If you were offered a choice between being an astronaut for $80,000 a year, or working at the Department of Motor Vehicles for the rest of your life for $100,000 a year, which would you take? I have a feeling you’d be asking NASA where to sign. Complexity, autonomy, and the innate reward in doing creative work — those are things worth more than money to most of us.

As for me, I gave up the huge salary and great benefits of the business I was working for. While I no longer have the corporate 401(k) and my insurance now is a bit more costly as a freelance writer, the value of following my passion is priceless.

This article is updated from its initial publication in Brain World Magazine.

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