A Dopamine Environment

Creating a Dopamine Environment
to Drive Organizational Performance

It baffles me. Why is it that I can get my teenage son to mow the lawn, but I can’t entice him to clean up his room? And why is he diligent about doing his homework, but not so much about making sure his basketball uniform is clean for practice? Or take my ultra-fit girlfriend who exercises religiously every day and hasn’t indulged in a piece of cake in years, compared to my other girlfriend who can’t seem to find the motivation to lose those 10 pounds she’s been complaining about for five years.

We all know how hard it is to get stuff done when we feel unmotivated. For instance, there are times when I need to make dinner for my family, but the couch feels so much better. Many call a lack of motivation laziness and procrastination. Whatever we call it, the fact is when motivation isn’t present, we simply can’t get things done. Although the more interesting question to me is why is motivation sometimes there and sometimes not?

Motivation defined.

Motivation is what fuels our ability to act. It’s an impulse we feel that’s driven by internal and external factors that stimulate our desire and energize us to move toward a goal. The only way we can really “see” motivation in others is by their behaviors. We know the role it plays in our ability to get things done—we rely on it to propel us forward. And in organizations, it is the special sauce that improves performance.

Over the years, influential thought leaders have created different types of motivation theories that attempt to explain why people do what they do. While somewhat helpful, these have not traditionally given us the insight we need to create and sustain a highly motivated workforce.

For example, for years organizations believed compensation to be the primary motivator; however, we know now that this is not always the case. In fact, the link between money, motivation, and performance can be quite complex. Current thinking tells us that factors such as growth, development, and the level of autonomy in our jobs help us feel inspired toward a purpose, and that these are what drive us to perform. Duke psychology professor and behavioral economist Dan Ariely says that to feel inspired, we need to feel we’re contributing and that our efforts have meaning. In fact, many of his studies prove that the more challenging the work, the more motivated one is due to a sense of accomplishment.

Whichever theory you subscribe to, understanding what motivates people requires us to get inside their heads (literally).

Motivation is all in our heads.

The cause of motivation (or lack of it) is due to our brain anatomy and chemistry. Until recently, we didn’t really understand the science behind what guides our behavioral energy and direction. Neuroscience provides additional insight into understanding how motivation works.

To keep it simple, we all have these things called neurotransmitters in our brains that act as communicators to the rest of our bodies. They tell our hearts to beat and lungs to breathe. We tend to talk mainly about four neurotransmitters—serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamine—because they are known as the “happy chemicals.” And when we’re feeling good, we tend to be more motivated.

But even more significant is the impact that dopamine in particular has on our motivation. When dopamine is released in our brain, it prompts us to respond: either to achieve something “good” or avoid something “bad.”
Someone that's part of a motivated workforce running away from a thumbs down, and towards a thumbs up
Vanderbilt University researchers were some of the first brain scientists to provide insight into the relationship between dopamine and motivation. They found that the “go-getters” (those typically willing to work hard for rewards) had higher levels of dopamine in the area of the brain associated with reward and motivation, while those we refer to as “slackers” (those not as willing to work hard for a reward) had high levels of dopamine in the area of the brain associated with emotion and risk perception. In other words, one group was motivated to work hard while the other was motivated to stay away from the hard work due to both the levels of dopamine AND where the dopamine was located in their brains.

Neuroscience also tells us that dopamine spikes right before we obtain a reward because we anticipate something important is about to happen. This signal helps us make decisions on how hard we want to work toward something. So, all together, this means we need to figure out how to increase the dopamine in the parts of our brain that decide a goal is worth the work to obtain it. If we can do this, we’ll successfully motivate people to perform at optimal levels!

Dopamine’s impact on organizational performance.

Creating a dopamine environment requires us to think holistically about all the factors that impact performance. This means starting with individuals and ensuring they feel alignment with their roles, with their relationships, with the organization they are members of, and with the community they live in. All these factors work together to create a positive working environment.

When I think about factors like these and the environment they create, I remember back to my very first job out of graduate school. Upon reflection, I now understand that my skillset did not really align with the expectations of the role. While I tried hard to do a good job, to be honest, I’m not sure my heart was really into it. It was challenging to see whether my efforts created value. Also fueling these feelings of disconnect with the role itself were the relationships I had with my manager and fellow team members. Because everyone on the team had been hired internally except me, they had difficulty trusting my ability to perform. And it didn’t help that my manager boasted about my academic background when the rest of the team had grown up in the organization. This was an organization that placed high value on growth through the ranks. Trust was derived from seniority with the company. This tribe-like culture made it challenging to feel motivated.

Combine all these factors—having the necessary knowledge and skills to do the job, the job design itself, associated relationships across the team, corporate culture—and it was not really a dopamine-fueled environment! To truly create a dopamine environment, organizations need to consider all these performance factors and ensure they are aligned. Here are a few suggestions:

Rally behind purpose.

“People can be inspired to meet stretch goals and tackle impossible challenges, if they care about the outcome.” — Elizabeth Moss Kanter, Professor at Harvard Business School

Uniting behind a purpose, when everyone feels a connection from the work they do to something larger, generates an unbelievable sense of commitment. Think about TOMS, the shoe company that promotes a buy-one-give-one model. They use profit as a catalyst rather than an objective to drive engagement across the organization. This desire to give transcends throughout the organization, helping align people to the work they are doing and giving them a reason to go the extra mile every day. It keeps them motivated!

Promote growth and development.

It is human nature to want to improve ourselves. When we feel stagnant, we’re less motivated to stay engaged. Hence, organizations should focus not only on what employees must do, but also on what they can do. This means individuals must be given opportunities to work on stretch assignments that excite them and promise the right mix of not-too-hard and not-too-easy. We need to ensure they are provided with the right level of support to be successful.

This may include ideas such as:

  • Being paired with a mentor who excels in the skill the individual is working on
  • Creating a continuous feedback culture where all feedback is valued and encouraged, and where people feel comfortable giving feedback in different directions when needed
  • Implementing a performance management process that promotes development over management and goal pursuit over goal achievement

Creating a dopamine environment.

Labeling ourselves and others as “go-getters” or “slackers” is not productive. Instead, we should focus on how to increase the dopamine in the parts of our brains that decide a goal is worth the work to obtain it. This means helping organizations foster dopamine environments by examining all the factors that impact an individual’s performance. Once the performance factors are aligned, your organization will be equipped to reach its full potential.

Want to learn more about the neuroscience of motivation and human performance? Check out some of our favorite books:

Want to chat with Elise about motivation? Give us a call at (859) 415-1000 or drop us a line in the form at the bottom of this page, and we’ll connect you with her.

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