The Agile For Agilists Podcast

Motivational Science: How Managers Shape (or Break) Employee Motivation


The Brain’s Caloric And Cognitive Limitations

Understanding human motivation is a perpetual puzzle, even in an age where scientific advancements have unraveled many mysteries of our world. Physiological research has shed light on some aspects, revealing, for instance, that even though the brain pretty consistently burns 20% of our caloric budget, thinking burns only a trivial amount of caloric energy. Even if thinking doesn’t create a caloric deficit, it is known that our executive function has limits. For decades we believed in a concept of ego depletion, suggesting a finite willpower reserve, but those findings have been challenged by recent studies highlighting the significant role belief plays in driving behavior. However, the limits of executive function and the complexities of sustained attention remain veiled, contributing to the enigma of mental fatigue.

In the realm of product development, where creativity is paramount, every role demands a substantial amount of brainpower and motivation. The brain’s capacity, known as Cognitive Load, imposes limitations on our ability to focus for extended periods, hold complex data, and engage in problem-solving. The often-overlooked challenge is multitasking, a practice at odds with our brain’s natural inclination for single-task focus. The cognitive cost of highly complex work, task-switching, or interruptions, results in mental fatigue, emphasizing the critical role of motivation in sustaining attention. For example, when a software engineer is developing a new future, they need to hold in their brain the goal of the task, code structure, code logic, connected systems, the tools they’re leveraging, and so on. Similarly, a leader may have multiple different people they need to keep in their head, important aspects about those people like name, title, responsibilities, current initiatives, historical interactions, and how those correlate to other parts of the organization and the topic they are currently engaging in. And don’t let anyone fool you, people are the most complex aspect of any job.

Motivation Fuels Executive Function

A UK study on nurses revealed an intriguing correlation between perceived fatigue and the sense of control and reward in their work, regardless of the impact of physical exertion or perceived job demand. This aligns with Dr. Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s Self-Determination Theory, which identifies autonomous motivation, driven by intrinsic and extrinsic factors, as a key player in human behavior. The opposite of autonomous motivation is controlled motivation, which is purely extrinsic with a driving motivator of expected reward or punishment. The theory proposes three fundamental human needs: autonomy, competence, and connection.

Within the Self-Determination Theory, Cognitive Evaluation Theory explores how an individual’s response to external factors can influence intrinsic motivation. Activities performed without a sense of control demand more self-regulation, impacting motivation. The subsequent Organismic Integration Theory delves into how individuals internalize the value of an activity, with autonomy playing a pivotal role. Extrinsic rewards, while initially motivating, can lead to a decline in interest over time, creating what author M. Molly Backes terms “The Impossible Task.”

Human Chemistry Affects Motivation

Studies, including one at McGill University, emphasize that fatigue is not solely a matter of self-discipline but a signal from the body to shift focus, suggesting an inherent need for balance and self-care. Prolonged fatigue can induce stress, affecting almost every physiological system. Elevated cortisol levels, a stress hormone, contribute to weight gain, hypertension, and muscle weakness, fostering a cycle of fatigue. Importantly, cortisol also inhibits dopamine production, the hormone responsible for motivation, and increases the consumption of serotonin, the hormone that promotes focus. Both of these hormones are two of the four hormones associated with mental wellness and activate the learning centers of the human brain. A deficiency in one or the other can lead to a lack of enjoyment in activities that once were enjoyable, and prevents employees from retaining new knowledge or learning from mistakes. Dr. Alex Korb‘s insights in “The Upward Spiral” underscore dopamine’s role in motivating different brain regions responsible for rationalization (prefrontal cortex), immediate pleasure (nucleus accumbens), and habitual response (dorsal striatum).

Emotions Take A Toll

Emotional Labor is another factor in mental fatigue. Different from Emotion Work, the managing of emotions for personal relationships and family caretaking, emotional labor is when an employee is required to suppress emotions or present emotions they may not be feeling as a job requirement. Prevalent in any customer-facing role, it is also a requirement in most office positions when collaborating with peers and interacting with superiors who leverage controlled motivators. This act is fatiguing in of itself, but when one layers in the challenges above, it can compound the feeling of exhaustion, lack of motivation, and burnout. Also of note, while emotional labor is taxing on everyone, women have disproportionately higher expectations for both emotional labor and emotion work. 

Emotions are a key characteristic of the human condition. Humans can learn to manage emotions in a healthier way through emotional intelligence exercises, but they cannot turn them off or completely disregard them. Likewise, employees are incapable of checking their emotions at the door, something becoming increasingly more difficult to compartmentalize due to an increase in work from home and the prevalence of digital devices that enable work to bleed into our personal lives. Personal stressors external to work are known catalysts of burnout and hindrances to job performance. While organizations have no control over people’s personal lives and situations, empathy, sufficient personal time, and flexible working arrangements can aid.

Leadership Influences All These Factors

In conclusion, while the intricacies of the mind are still unraveling, with many factors contributing to motivation and mental capacity, one clear thread emerges: executive function thrives on motivation. Recognizing motivation as an individual’s intrinsic driving force, correlated with a sense of control and value, becomes imperative. This sheds light on a preference for democratic leadership styles that promote autonomy and equitable rewards, aligning with our psychological and physiological predispositions and conflicting with autocratic approaches common in organizations today. Mental fatigue is still not well understood, but it is a biological response to stressors and known to diminish motivation. Creating working environments that promote individual wellbeing is an inescapable truth for promoting high-performing organizations.

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