Starting from square one: What you need to know about Neuroscience and Motivation Theory 

In a recent paper on Engagement and Wellbeing, Chris Burton and Linda Buchan (2015) describe engagement as “individual and personal”, meaning that each individual within a group might be engaged for different reasons. The implication is that organizations must focus on engaging every individual within the group rather than trying to build engagement at a group level.

Burton & Buchan review recent advances in neuroscience which show that full engagement (and also wellbeing) begins in an individual’s unconscious state. At the most fundamental level, neuroscienceour unconscious neural response to reward and threat acts as a trigger to determine the extent to which we will approach (engage with) or avoid situations we encounter in the work environment. The chemicals released by the brain when we experience reward provoke feelings of wellbeing and a willingness to cooperate with others, whilst the chemicals associated with threat may have a significantly damaging effect on our health. So, for organizations to achieve full engagement, with all individuals motivated to contribute to organizational performance, they must find ways to activate this internal reward mechanism.


This evidence from modern day neuroscience is particularly intriguing when viewed in conjunction with the work of motivation theorists dating back to the 1930s. For example, the pioneering work of Henry Murray (1938) proposed that motivational drivers often lie dormant within the individual until ‘fired up’ by an appropriate environmental trigger. Hence people high in achievement motivation may produce only mediocre performance in college exams, but in the longer term work environment they will outperform others of equal ability when presented with a realistic challenge.

Attempts at assessing motivation began with asking people to write stories about ambiguous pictures into which they would ‘project’ their unconscious drivers, but increasingly sophisticated psychometrics can achieve the same objective by presenting respondents with questionnaire items that are quite different from the implications of their scores. The Elemental measure of intrinsic motivation taps into unconscious drivers this way in order to define the kind of work situation in which the individual will identify with the nature of the task and encounter appropriate challenge. It is therefore used to activate reward circuitry in the brain by aligning what employees want from the work situation with what the organization requires – their intrinsic drivers are made conscious through the positive experience of ‘being where you want to be’.

For information on how to access the Elemental questionnaire and respondent’s report for free, please contact Arkadia Research & Training on 01656 772861 or email info@arkadia-rt.co.uk.

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