The Secret Science of Staff Motivation


In our businesses, we create incentive systems with targets and goals, we may even offer bonuses and in this sense we as leaders, try to direct our employees behaviour. But, did you know that inside the human body there are 4 chemical incentives that work the same way- if not better, and will explain why so many “incentives” don’t and simply can’t work.

These are the 4 chemicals that define human happiness (the biological Beatles).

Every single feeling we know as happiness is defined by these 4 chemicals, and when these chemicals are working in perfect harmony the results will change everything.

  1. Endorphins

    Your body releases endorphins for one purpose and that is to mask physical pain with pleasure, they are addictive and highly enjoyable. In the work environment all levels of the company are subject to levels of personal and emotional stress. 

    So how do we relieve stress in the organisation?

    Laughter is a quick and easy fix – and it works because laughing triggers an endorphin rush, which has the power to reduce stress and remove tension in both us and others. And, because it’s addictive we tend to do it more. That's one way to increase staff motivation.
  2. Dopamine

    It is dopamine that makes us a goal orientated species with a bias for progress.  This is the chemical that drives you to accomplish your goals; it creates that feeling of satisfaction when you have completed a task and keeps you focussed along the way. We all know how good it feels when we have crossed something off our to-do list!

    So how can we use this to motivate our staff or team?

    When we are given a task to complete or a metric to reach, as long as we can see it we can achieve it. If we can clearly imagine our goals then we will get a little burst of dopamine that will edge us along the way. As we make progress towards our goals, with each task completed we get a little hit of dopamine which continues to incentivise us towards our final goals. And when we finally succeed we are met with a large hit!

    We must measure our progress or it won’t be done.

    As we move towards our goals the metrics tell us were making progress and when we finally reach that goal we receive an intense feeling of satisfaction, our biological reward for doing that work.

    This is why GOALS must be SMART – they must be TANGIBLE.  It does not work if you inform your people that there will be a bonus if “we achieve more growth this year”.

    If we do not have clear goal (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time) then we cannot measure progress, which means your team will miss the dopamine to give them the momentum to get things done.
  1. Serotonin (aka the Leadership Chemical)

    This chemical is responsible for the feeling of pride. It is the feeling we get when we perceive others like or respect for us. As social animals we crave the approval of others, it really matters.

    As human beings we want the work that we do to be valued by others, especially those within our group. This is an innately human relationship that makes us feel this way. It is because of serotonin that we can’t feel a sense of accountability to our numbers, we can only feel accountable to people.

    How does serotonin play a part in the workplace?

    Serotonin is what helps to encourage your workforce to push themselves to succeed. The more that team members drive themselves towards a shared goal and help others in aid of that goal, the greater value to the group and the more respect the other team members will offer.

    Whether we are a business leader, coach or parent serotonin is working to encourage us to serve those whom we are directly responsible as well as those who we will “make proud”.

  1. Oxytocin

    This is the chemical that causes the feelings of friendship, love and deep trust.

    Without oxytocin there would be no empathy and we wouldn’t be able to develop the solid bonds of trust and friendship that we need to create strong, healthy relationships.

    It is because of oxytocin that we trust others to build our businesses do difficult things and let them help us out when we’re struggling. It is because of oxytocin that we feel human connections and hang out with the people that we like. It is what makes us social.

    As a species we can accomplish more in groups than as individuals, we need to have the instinct to know who to trust. In no business, no one person should have to maintain a constant state of vigilance to ensure that they are safe. If we are among those that we trust we can share the responsibility amongst the entire group. Unlike dopamine that is about instant gratification, oxytocin is long lasting.

    Oxytocin is released with physical contact, while I am not telling you that you should be hugging your staff; think about all those times that you have shaken hands. Instantly there is a feeling of deeper respect.

So what do these chemicals mean for my business?

When all of these chemicals are in harmony we feel safe and sure of ourselves and can put our best foot forward.

When people feel safe amongst their peers, our natural reaction is trust and cooperation. When we don’t feel comfortable these powerful connections are broken and it results is cynicism, paranoia and self-interest.

As a leader it is your aim to set a corporate culture that is free of these issues, free from the danger of others.

The most successful share one thing in common; their staff felt safe, the leaders in these businesses had enabled; as Simon Sinek says “a circle of safety in their business”.

More from Vistage:

New Call-to-action

Subscribe to the blog

Our gift to you...

Apply now for your personal leadership consultation with a Vistage Chair. They'll help you assess areas of strength of your business and identify areas of potential growth.

Apply Now

    Subscribe Here!