On Motivation

Someone recently asked me “how can I motivate my team member when the market is down and the value of their stock options may not grow as quickly?” I initially tried to answer the question by focusing on the odds of startup valuation still growing faster than other asset classes, and other non-linear & intrinsic value of social capital accumulated at startups that may introduce new opportunities later in life. But I didn’t find my answers satisfying at all. I thought about why.

Over time, experience has taught me that more often than not, defining the right problem to solve is far more important than the solution itself. Perfect solution to a wrong problem is just plain wasteful.

So how can one motivate their team member when things are getting tough? What are the mechanics behind motivation that can give us insights into finding the right solution to the problem?

Based on neuroscience, motivation primarily is dictated by dopamine responses. There are other neuromodulators that influence your motivation, like testosterone, serotonin, epinephrine, and sometimes cortisol. There’s a literature on experiments done on rats where on one group of rats, parts of the brain where dopamine is produced were removed vs the other group. When a rat presses a lever, it was given food, a pleasurable experience. When any rat from both groups pressed the lever, they all were able to enjoy good food and experienced pleasure as a reward. But when both groups were moved even just a body length away from the levers, while the normal rats quickly rushed back to the lever and pressed it to consume more food, the other group where the parts of brain that produced dopamine were removed, didn’t even bother to move a length of their body to press the lever. Their motivation was completely gone and not surprisingly, human brains are not much different from this aspect when it comes to motivation. When our dopamine response is not engaged, we don’t feel motivated to do something.

So what does dopamine actually do in our brains? It creates a yearning, a desire to pursue something. In a business context, this could mean wanting to check off a small item on your todo list, writing code, shipping a product, selling something, raising money, recruiting a key talent, all the way to successfully taking a company public. Pretty much any goal that we pursue is driven by our dopamine releases. Then how do we make sure we can lean into pursuing worthwhile goal when the market is down, and our stock values are not growing as quickly?

In his seminal book “Drive”, Daniel Pink describes two different categories of motivation: intrinsic motivators and extrinsic motivators. He described 3 factors as the key pillars to intrinsic motivation: purpose, mastery, and autonomy. Then there’s been a rather successful attempt to introduce an extra factor: relatedness, making them the 4 factors of intrinsic motivation: RAMP (relatedness, autonomy, mastery, purpose). On the other hand, extrinsic motivators are something that others give you: money, fame, followers, power, titles, etc. Intrinsic motivators as the name suggests are driven by your own internal thoughts, beliefs, and emotions.

Intrinsic motivators are a powerful force and once identified as your own, it can last beyond the current job and organization, and enable you to endure beyond the short-term tasks. 1) Finding purpose in your life, being part of something that’s greater than yourself, 2) acquiring skills and knowledge that allows you to grow and increase your mastery, 3) having the right set of tools, access, decision making power, and resources to do things autonomously, and 4) being part of a group of people that you feel belonged to can create a life-long and self-propelled motivation. This can be guided and coached by your manager or inspired by broader leadership group, but is primarily identified within oneself. Once discovered and bought in, we can find ways to motivate ourselves much more effectively. This form of motivation is especially helpful in pursuing complex, creative, and challenging work — the kind of work where an exceptional outcome can be orders of magnitude greater than an average outcome. On the flip side, when one of your team members are deprived of 2 or more out of the 4 factors of intrinsic motivators — for example, removing autonomy by micromanaging severely, depriving sense of purpose by only focusing on short-term goals and monetary gains, having someone do the same thing repeatedly without growth or learning new things, or isolating someone to work only by themselves without meaningful connection and collaboration — can make them quit in a quarter or two.

Extrinsic motivators are usually given to you by someone else, and it’s a form of external validation. This is quite useful in making someone do monotonous tasks repeatedly and rapidly — simple tasks in assembly lines, delivering packages, or selling commodity products. But when it comes to creative work that is not easily defined, or work that requires complex problem solving, that may require a long-term commitment, extrinsic motivators tend to fail to work, or even worse backfire, especially if its something that people genuinely enjoy doing already. There’s a study done with groups of students where both were given tasks that are a bit challenging but also somewhat rewarding, such as solving puzzles. One group were given time to work on the puzzle, while the other groups were given explicit reward to those who solve the puzzle. Then after sometime, reward was removed from the second group, then was asked to keep doing the puzzles. After the change, the second group engaged in puzzles far less than the first group who was not offered reward in the first place. Introducing and removing reward had far more adversarial effect on the task completion and motivation than those with no extrinsic motivators presented at all. The outcome of extrinsic motivator is not only short-lived, but the negative impact lasted beyond the experiment.

So what does this all mean? Let’s go back to the neuromodulators: this is how dopamine works. Dopamine is often associated with rewards and pleasure, but actually, it’s more of a hormone that creates craving, yearning, and desire to pursue. But when we get something we desired, after a surge in dopamine, the baseline for dopamine drops, along with the release of prolactin, which suppresses testosterone. What’s interesting is after the dopamine response, which we think only is associated with pleasure reward, there’s also a small pain that is triggered, which creates this urge for the next dopamine release. So when our dopamine baseline drops, we need even stronger amounts of dopamine to feel the same level of joy and pleasure, and the pain response makes us pursue that next peak. This is commonly found in drug addiction, as drugs creates huge peaks of dopamine, leading to a dopamine crash, lowering the baseline substantially, while the pain response crates craving for the next greater dopamine peak. But this cycle is not unique to drugs. Desire for food, sex, alcohol, or achieving some sort of a win can still be strong enough to trigger someone down a path for the next dopamine peak. Dopamine do not discriminate the what, but just that you want it and want more of it faster. The sharper and faster the peak, the greater the crash and the drop of the dopamine baseline.

That’s the key difference in extrinsic vs intrinsic motivators: they tend to be quantifiable (money, title, followers), and tend to be more immediate and sharper in dopamine peaks: when you get that commission for closing a deal at the end of the month, bonus at the end of the year, a pay raise, a promotion, and increase in your social media followers. All of this leads to immediate and sharp dopamine peaks, which then a dopamine crash follows lowering your baseline. Experienced employees and managers probably all felt this sometime in their careers. The emotional impact of a raise (or a fundraise at a startup) only lasts a month or so. After that, the employee goes back to their baseline performance, but their cravings for the next bigger reward became more urgent and greater. This does not mean that we should not give people raises or promotions, but recognize that usually this is not the enduring solution to problems related to low level of motivation or high employee attrition.

What’s worse is the dopamine baselines drops even more significantly with regularity and predictability. When we can predict the reward and actually receive them, the impact of such diminishes significantly. There’s literature that shows in order to motivate people to take on bigger challenges for a longer period of time, you actually do not want to reward people regularly and predictably. Removing predictability and not celebrating every win increases the chance of the person pursuing the quest for far longer period of time. This might have evolutionary benefit, as if we always get the reward every time we pursue something, the moment we don’t get it, the disappointment and dopamine crash is far greater. So by having less predictable outcomes and pursuing greater and extended challenges (for example, when we set out to hunt, we don’t always succeed in getting food) we evolved to be able to persevere hardships that come with uncertainty.

So when trying to motivate your team members, the right and more effective approach is to create a strong foundation of intrinsic motivators first, then layer extrinsic motivators associated to the overall progression of the employee’s growth and performance, but actually remove regular and predictable rewards and celebrations.

When our dopamine is depleted, we may rely on other things to augment the deprivation. As dopamine creates neuroenergy to pursue things, when we our dopamine runs low, we also lack the neuroenergy to engage in activities. In these situations, sometimes we rely on short-term energy boosts coming from stressful situations which releases cortisol, or from epinephrine which is released from anxiety and alertness (which is created by dopamine). But there’s also a happy alternative — serotonin — the “here and now” hormone. When we focus on what we currently have that are good, appreciate the now, and are feeling grateful, we start to engage in serotonin responses, creating a feeling of content and happiness, that can also help us stay the course. “Relatedness” of the intrinsic motivators are related to serotonin and oxytocin, which creates such happiness, and the sense of attachment and affection with people around you.

There are other tactical ideas: by achieving small wins, even as small as making your bed in the morning, or cleaning a small portion of your desk, these can kick start your dopamine response, that can help steer the neuroenergy towards other increasingly challenging tasks. Also caffeine is known to boost dopamine release by 30%, so while there are a small percentage of people who are less responsive to caffeine, most people can carefully leverage caffeine to give a short-term boost to dopamine as well.

Then there’s something more foundational at an individual level, that’s mostly guided by one’s personalty traits that are expressed from genetic makeup. One of more reliable models of personality traits is something called the Big Five Factors (or OCEAN model), and one of the factors that are highly correlated to socio-economical success is conscientiousness. Conscientiousness, as the name suggests, measures and predicts how hard someone works for a longer period of time. While luck and environmental factors do matter in success, all things being equal, studies show that when one works harder and longer tend to achieve better results and make more progress towards a successful outcome. World class athletes are known for their disciplined and deliberate trainings regimen, many of the world class business leaders are known workaholics (although they may argue they are not working, but just doing what they love), and world class pianists or violinists are known for long practice hours. Conscientiousness has been observed to be precursor to successful outcomes in many different fields.

But how does this connect to motivation? One interesting impact of the hormone testosterone, which is found both in men and women, are its impact on pain endurance. Testosterone can make effort feel good in our brains, making people lean into pain and challenges. Dopamine and testosterone has an interesting impact on our motivations: dopamine can create initial motivation to pursue a goal, and when we are presented with a win, our testosterone levels go up as well. When testosterone is released, we are calmer, more aggressive, and confidence gets a boost. We raise our goals and work harder because of this sequence of dopamine and testosterone releases. One with above average level of testosterone and dopamine, met with series of wins will experience a virtuous (or vicious) cycle of working harder and longer for more aspirational goals, which is the hallmark of conscientiousness. I have not read a paper on the relationship between dopamine, testosterone, and conscientiousness, but one could possibly guess the connection between this personality trait and the level of hormonal responses. So one with hormonal composition of high dopamine and testosterone is probably easier to self-motivate and be motivated by others, and as we’ve seen from the mechanics, that there’s not a lot managers can do to motivate someone with naturally lower level of dopamine, other than recommending them to consult a doctor if they choose to improve this through supplements, while the possible irony is that even this too requires some motivation to pursue this path.

One more thing to consider is the impact of our pre-frontal cortex in all of this. Our pre-frontal cortex often functions as “executive brain,” in other words, inhibitors, or “brakes” for our impulses. So when we seek rapid and immediate dopamine peaks through unhealthy behaviors which results in dopamine crashes and lowering of baselines, from activities like addicted gambling or drugs, people with greater control triggered by pre-frontal cortex can stop oneself from engaging in such behaviors, and intentionally divert our attention to more healthy and productive goal seeking behaviors.

So the key takeaways are:

  1. To motivate oneself, we should first focus on identifying and establishing our own intrinsic motivators, then strategically layer extrinsic motivators along the growth path, so that it will benefit us socio-economically, but not too regularly or predictably that will actually harm our motivation for the long journey towards our long-term purpose and mission, otherwise we may just give up too quickly and fall into the short-term dopamine addiction cycle that will be hugely disruptive to our wellbeing — both physically and mentally.
  2. To motivate others, understanding the underlying mechanics of motivation in our brains and psychology will be helpful, so that we can coach and guide others along the similar foundations as we would use to motivate ourselves. But also recognize that everyone’s brain is wired differently and the hormonal responses and associated baselines differ as well, so we may find some people to be easier to motivate than others. Recruiting for the right talent is probably a bit easier than to aiming to rewire someone’s mature brain through neuroplasticity.

So to answer the question: “how can I motivate my team member when the market is down and the value of their stock options may not grow as quickly?” I’d recommend learning about and focusing on the 4 intrinsic motivators of the person first, and how the individual’s tendencies related to hormones such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin are directed. Also think about layering in other extrinsic factors that can be directionally, but unpredictably introduced along their growth path. Then start by setting a small set of goals and wins to kick start the dopamine & testosterone cycle to help the person regain motivation and move forward to greater goals.

Author: John

Positive tenacity. CEO at SendBird 💬 The no.1 conversations platform for mobile apps. Investor at Valon Capital. Ex-#1 FPS pro-gamer. ⭐️ Interested in creating scalable impact through technology.

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