Understanding just a few key principles of neuroscience can help managers motivate their teams to better performance, says EnHansen Performance senior coach and facilitator, Kristen Hansen.

"Neuroscience now sheds light onto what it is that makes people more or less motivated to achieve a particular goal," she told HR Daily.

And despite the complexity of the topic, it is actually quite simple for managers to employ on a day-to-day basis. "You actually don't need to know very much about neuroscience to be able to impact motivation."

The first thing to keep in mind is that the key driver of the brain is to "minimise threat and maximise reward", says Hansen, an executive and leadership coach and trainer who specialises in neuroscience.

"Everything starts from there. The brain scans the environment five times every second, non-consciously, for whether stimulus in the environment is a threat or a reward.

"If it is a threat, it impacts the thinking capabilities, because the brain goes into 'fight or flight' mode, and essentially that reduces the field of view the brain has - it reduces the ability to see options and creativity.

"If the brain is recognising reward, however, it becomes more open to opportunities, more creative. It is more able to have insights, which essentially means new ways forward."

Create a safe place
Managers who want to motivate their teams must first ensure that people feel "safe", Hansen says. They can do this by adopting what neuroleadership expert David Rock calls the SCARF model, which comprises:
  • Status - "If you're a manager you can give someone status by asking their opinion, seeking permission to give feedback, and giving them positive encouragement, and recognition."

  • Certainty "Managers can provide certainty by ensuring that people are up to date with projects, with management decisions, with expectations of their role and communication. It's a key one because a lot of people, if they're feeling uncertain, are in a threatened state.

    "Particularly during restructuring, for example, people need to know what's going on. It's important to give people even a small amount of certainty, such as, 'I'll get back to you tomorrow at nine AM, even if I may not know more'. It gives them more certainty than saying, 'I don't know anything, and I'll let you know when I know something'. It lets them at least think, 'My manager will touch base with me tomorrow. I can let that worry go for now.'"

  • Autonomy - "Managers can give people autonomy very simply by allowing them to make work choices, and by allowing them to have flexibility in work design - in the 'how to' of projects - rather than explicitly explaining how to do things."

  • Relatedness - "This is about caring who that individual is, relating to them, finding similarities, and being interested in who they are holistically."

  • Fairness - "The brain requires fairness both in how 'self' is treated and how 'others' are treated. It very quickly puts someone into a threat space if they perceive they are being unfairly treated."
Brain-based coaching
Another way that managers can improve motivation and performance is through solution-oriented questioning, Hansen says.

"Basically, brain-based coaching produces action. Allowing people to have questions around their thinking can help them relax and reflect, which will then allow them to have insight."

Asking an employee questions such as, "How important is it for you to resolve this?" and "How long have you been thinking about this"? helps their brain not just to try and solve the problem, but to reflect on their thinking.

"That space quietens the brain to allow for insight," Hansen says. "And insight in itself produces some action, some potential.

"If I suggest, 'You do this', you're just going to do it. You don't have any insight to what you think the next step is, and you're not overly motivated, compared to if you came up with the idea yourself, which could be way more creative than what I suggested you do."

Help workers find "the zone"
A third way managers can motivate their teams is by helping them work in their "zone".

"Helping people get into the 'zone' allows people to be at their peak motivation level," Hansen says.

This comes about when they have the right balance of challenge versus skill in their work.

"If somebody has enough challenge in their role and just enough skill to do it, they're most likely to be in the zone.

"If the challenge is too high or the skill is too high for the challenge, they're not in the zone. Essentially, the brain wants to be excited by challenge, because we get a hit of the neurochemical dopamine when we are excited by a challenge or something novel. When it's not the same old repetition or the same old job we've done 100 times, we're more motivated to perform.

"But if the job is way too challenging, we're actually experiencing adrenalin, which then releases the hormone cortisol through our system and that impacts negatively both our motivation to perform and our ability to perform."

Hansen adds that new developments in neuroscience, which allow people to use biofeedback and neurofeedback to "know whether they're in the zone, and what it takes for them to get into the zone", are proving extremely useful for organisations keen to foster peak performance, particularly at the executive level.

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