New Zealand Law Society - The brain and workplace motivation

The brain and workplace motivation

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For over a century motivational tools for the workplace have centred on job title, career potential and, perhaps unsurprisingly, remuneration. However, while businesses continue using these extrinsic workplace motivators they are no longer fuelling people’s desires to contribute to what is now a less industrialised economy.

Instead, in the 21st century marketplace – an increasingly more fluid and creative space – it is intrinsic motivators like flexibility, autonomy, feeling safe and having a sense of purpose that are the driving factors for workplace satisfaction.1, 2

Significantly, there is scientific evidence that compensatory incentives are actually detrimental to performance and happiness.3, 4

In 2009, as an example, economists at the London School of Economics looked at 51 studies of pay-for-performance plans. Here’s what they said: “We find that financial incentives can result in a negative impact on overall performance.”5

Reduced effectiveness

This is especially true when examining tasks that have a high degree of complexity. Studies done suggest that while repetitive and concrete tasks may respond well to extrinsic rewards, activities which require casting a wider net over an issue may actually cause the brain to narrow its focus and reduce effectiveness.6

Einstein’s once famously said: “insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results”. Unfortunately, this seems applicable to the businesses world – persisting with this “carrot and stick” model when it comes to motivating and engaging staff.

So why haven’t we changed our models of motivating and influencing others, given that the power of intrinsic motivators has been recognised and iterated in research for well over 40 years?

The reason is simple. It would require a reframing our entire approach to business. And change is scary.


So what is motivation and can we influence it?

To trace the source of motivation, we need to examine the brain. The brain is a myriad of interconnected yet independent chemical and electrical messages. Neurotransmitters spark these messages to keep us alert and on task. One specific neurotransmitter that plays a role in motivation is dopamine.

Dopamine is a well-known chemical which is passed from one neuron to the next, interacting with various receptors inside the synapse between two neurons. This happens throughout your some 1,000 trillion synapses which fire up to 50 times a second.7 Your brain is a complex wee beast.

Initial studies of dopamine concentrated on its well-known connection to pleasurable feelings until it was noticed that dopamine release was triggered by high stress scenarios.8 It turns out this occurs before we obtain rewards, meaning that dopamine is actually encouraging us to act and motivate us to achieve or avoid something bad.9, 10 Research now supports dopamine’s impact on:

  • memory and attentiveness;
  • positivity;
  • social behaviours;
  • creativity;
  • sleep maintenance; and
  • motivation.11

Pathway dependent

Aside from the amount of dopamine released, it depends heavily on a person’s environment to where dopamine is passed to in the brain and, in regards to motivation, it matters which neural pathway dopamine takes.

The mesolimbic pathway, which originates in the middle of the brain, is considered the most important reward pathway in the brain. This pathway goes via the nucleus accumbens – the part of your brain that predicts rewards and motivates you to do something. Low levels of dopamine and a poor or negative environment (which can reduce dopamine production) can influence mood, our ability to socialise and make people less likely to work for things. Dopamine has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself.12, 13

So for some people in the workplace, the rewards that are offered – performance pay, extra holidays or the kudos of a fancy job title – may be having far less of an effect on performance than those employing them had hoped.

So what kind of intrinsic motivation can be developed in the workplace and can we train our brain in regards to managing dopamine?

Training your brain

You can train your brain to increase your dopamine levels.

Allowing yourself time out to “thank yourself” for attaining small goals during the day, helps your brain generate a dopamine response. Positive workplace environments, where colleagues regularly praise each other as they work together, will have higher levels of dopamine, and therefore motivation, than people working in isolation.14 This knowledge is important, as dopamine levels – along with another neurotransmitter, serotonin – play a large part in the occurrence of depressive episodes.15

Restructuring your business

Creating a change in how your business recognises achievements and rewards may be a significant game changer in regards to workplace motivation and satisfaction.

Career analyst Dan Pink suggests that intrinsic motivators like flexibility, autonomy and a sense of purpose are three of the most important motivators of the 21st Century. Now while a balance is good – and providing a good lot of extrinsic motivators are probably essential in this world of consumerism, with dopamine’s influence over mood and motivation, thinking of ways to develop a more positive work environment are important.

Dopamine has a powerful biological connection to our levels of motivation. Any techniques we can employ at work that reinforce positive feedback will influence maintaining alert and healthy brains.

This information, and the understanding that motivation is more heavily influenced by intrinsic rewards such as autonomy and purpose, may help us create more positive and productive workplaces for the twenty-first century.

Here are a few simple ideas that may influence workplace motivation and personal health:

Use positive language – saying a simple “good morning” is known to increase people’s motivation and sense of well-being.

Keep connected – let people be part of, and know their role in, where your organisation is heading.

Mix and match – when reviewing goals, mix up your teams. People may be more interested in feedback from outside of their area. New ideas may stem from these heterogeneous groups.

Learning together – engaging in teams to learn new skills is engaging and increases your organisation’s skill base.

Match tasks to talents – keep people engaged by helping them do more of what they are great at.

Authentic praise – do this often and lead by example.

Follow through – as a leader always follow through on a promise. Always.

Open days – consider a day a fortnight where people can choose to work from home or where people decide what particular piece of work they will focus on.

Chart it – have a team approach for attaining goals. Make a public and purposeful move to congratulate team members when they complete even the smallest of milestones. 

Ken Trass is the New Zealand Law Society’s Professional Development Manager.

1. O’Donnell J, 2015, “Stop trying to bribe your employees” at

2. Loder V, 2015, “How great leaders motivate their teams” at

3. Charmorro-Premuzic T, 2013, “Does money really affect motivation: A review of the research” at


5. Pink D, 2009, “The Puzzle of motivation” at 11’13”.

6. Pink D, 2009, “The Puzzle of motivation” at 6’50”.


8. Tidey J and Miczek K, 1996, “Social defeat stress selectively alters mesocorticolimbic dopamine release: an in vivo microdialysis study”, Brain Research 721 (1-2) pp 140-49.

9. Nunes E et al, 2013, “Nucleus accumbens neurotransmission and effort-related choice behavior in food motivation: Effects of drugs acting on dopamine, adenosine, and muscarinic acetylcholine receptors”, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, pp 2015-2025.

10. Imperato A et al, 1991, “Changes in brain dopamine and acetylcholine release during and following stress are independent of the pituitary-adrenocortical axis”, Brain Research 538 (1), pp 111-17.

11. Salamonel J, 2012, “The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine”, Department of Psychology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269-1020 USA.



14. Mehta M, 2013, “Why our brains like short term goals” at

15. Salamonel J, 2012, “The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine”, Department of Psychology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT 06269-1020 USA.

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