Warming Up to Motivation During Change

We’re all capable of a little more – a little faster, a little higher, a little stronger, a little more. Just Do It.

Nike, 2013.

Warming Up to Motivation During Change 2014-03-12

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Motivation is literally the desire to do things (Staub, 2011). This desire stems from intellectual choices, emotional responses, needs and values. Thus to increase that desire, we have to involve both intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external) drivers.

This rings true for me. I had just moved to a new city where I knew virtually no one. I had new responsibilities which were a stretch in my career growth and my team was working with new technology that promised great benefits but had many potential pitfalls. Despite these unknowns, our team was highly motivated. Was there more than the fact that we “just did it”? What are the underlying drivers behind why we did?

A common model for exploring these motivational drivers is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This model is rooted in the idea that basic physical, extrinsic needs (e.g. shelter, food, and safety) must be met before motivation is driven by psychological or social needs (e.g. esteem, self-actualization) (McLeod, 2014). However research does not always support this model since it discounts the idea that social needs may be as foundational as physical needs. As leaders, it’s important to understand many different motivational drivers. This week we explore additional ideas on motivation grounded in neuroscience research.


  • What questions can you ask to uncover the motivational-drivers that influence each of your team members?
  • How does each team member describe (qualify or quantify) their need for status, certainty, autonomy, and relatedness?
  • To what extent, are you transparent (with your team) about organizational goals/values and the rationales behind key decisions?
  • How can you build a social climate that employees find motivating?
  • How often do you give your staff autonomy to make decisions, instead of directing them on work choices?

David Rock is the founding president of the NeuroLeadership Institute and the CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group which helps global organizations grow their leadership teams using brain research as a base for self-awareness and social awareness. He developed the SCARF model for motivation based on neuroscience research which suggests that the brain equates social needs with survival. Rock proposes that when leaders focus on social factors, their team members better manage stress and feel rewarded (Rock, 2009). He outlines the following key social qualities that increase motivation:

  • Status is based on the comparisons made about relative rank in the organization. It’s easy to see how a promotion or a raise increases an employee’s status and can be motivating. In addition recognition, praise, and respect are also status motivational drivers.
  • Certainty is based on familiarity and the ease with which an employee can function in a known situation. In today’s uncertain world, leaders can build certainty by increasing transparency about the organization’s goals and values as well as sharing the rationale for key decisions.
  • Autonomy is based on the amount of control an individual feels they have over their decisions and activities. Making the organization’s goals widely known sets the stage for employees to make their own decisions that are aligned with leadership priorities.
  • Relatedness is based on trust and a sense of belonging. This implies that community-building can increase motivation and leaders should intentionally work to find common ground.
  • Fairness is based on the perception that people are treated equally and without preference. Employees are more motivated when opportunities are grounded on defined criteria while privileges are not reserved for specific groups.

If I think back on the success of my earlier team, although there was a great deal of uncertainty, my manager provided a clear roadmap of milestones; so we understood the goals and recognized the challenges facing us (Certainty). Those of us new to the city formed a strong bond (Relatedness). Innovative ideas from all team members were encouraged, recognized and implemented (Autonomy). Our manager also made time to understand each team member, set appropriate challenges and recognized our efforts (Fairness). Meeting these social needs motivated the team members to focus on how the new technology could transform the organization. As a group and individually, we exceeded expectations. And yes, my physiological needs were also met as I secured housing and found a grocery store.



To inspire your team, move beyond “Just do it” and embrace the many drivers (both social and physiological) that influence motivation:

1. Leverage both intrinsic and extrinsic drivers. Get to know each team member and determine their desires. Incorporate these into your workplans wherever possible.

2. Increase transparency. While some information may be confidential, figure out what you can share with your team. For instance, share your overall goals, roadmap, assumptions and concerns.

3. Build a community. Create an environment that is respectful and fair. Offer opportunities for rewards and recognition from both leaders and peers.

4. Give latitude where possible. Every project or activity has constraints that will limit your ability to be completely accommodating. In each case, look for those opportunities where you can provide flexibility and independence to your team members and set team norms accordingly.


Rock, D. (2009.). Managing with the brain in mind.  strategy+business, (56), Retrieved from http://www.davidrock.net/files/ManagingWBrainInMind.pdf

McLeod, S. (2014.). Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Staub, E. (2011). Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/basics/motivation

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Allison Youngblood

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