Call to mind the last time you were really excited about something.
Maybe you were anticipating a vacation or spending a fun afternoon with someone you like to be with.
Now, run through the memory in your mind:
- What were you feeling before the event took place? Can you identify with a feeling of anticipation and excitement while waiting for the event to happen?
- Then, think back to what happened once that exciting event was done. Did you experience a feeling of letdown or sadness?
The mini-rollercoaster ride of emotion, from the highs of anticipation to the lows of disappointment or mild sadness, is the work of dopamine.
Although it seems that the act of engaging in the exciting event itself would be the most rewarding, in the last decade neuroscience research has uncovered that dopamine is less about the reward state and more about motivation and striving (John D. Salamone, Mercè Correa. The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine. Neuron, 2012; 76 (3): 470 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.10.021).
This key finding on the role of dopamine in motivation and striving have significant implications for how you engage your team in pursuing a goal.
Motivate your team to increase engagement.
Aligning people to a sense of purpose can start the motivation cycle by helping everyone on your team feel that there is something worthwhile to invest their energy in.
But what happens in complex times where it becomes difficult to see the connection between your efforts and a positive outcome?
This sense of disconnect may be a core factor behind the Great Resignation. As more and more people feel their efforts are no longer contributing to something of meaning, and no longer anticipate a positive outcome from those efforts, the motivation behind getting up and going to work vanishes.
As a leader, it’s your job to create conditions for people that allow them to feel engaged and motivated, despite complexity and uncertainty. When you’ve mastered the ability to do this well, it’ll make all the difference between a group of compliant employees meeting the minimum standards and an engaged, high performing, and motivated team.
The key ingredient in this recipe of keeping people engaged is helping them feel a sense of reward from striving for a meaningful goal rather than achieving the goal. In other words, encouraging a growth mindset amongst your team will help them stay active and engaged at work.
Encourage a growth mindset in your team
From a growth mindset perspective, focusing people on how they’ve improved and helping them capture those improvements is deeply rewarding. It empowers people by helping them to see that the energy and effort they’ve been putting in has generated a result - even if it’s not the ultimate end-goal.
Think of it like your daily to-do list. Your ultimate goal is to check everything off, but there’s something so rewarding that comes from just checking off a single item. You haven’t completed everything, but you’ve done something, and that checkmark triggers a hit of dopamine, leaving you feeling more motivated than before you checked off the item.
If, instead of looking at your day as black and white (you either completed your full checklist or you didn’t), you spend more time celebrating what you have accomplished, you’ll feel empowered rather than powerless, motivated rather than burnt-out.
The same is true of your team. When your team culture and focus is all about achieving one major task or goal, especially during times of uncertainty when we can’t predict what will happen from one day to the next, it can generate a feeling of learned helplessness.
Days goes by and the major goal hasn’t been achieved - leaving everyone feeling powerless and ineffective. But as the team leader, it’s important to accept what you and your team can and can’t control. You have no control over the unpredictability of our times, but you do have control over what you choose to focus on and how you encourage and motivate your team.
When you keep your team focused on progress and learning, they’ll feel like what they’re doing is making a difference and be motivated to keep doing it.
4 activities to keep your team motivated
- Reframe stress and connect it back to a success story.
Shift your team away from feeling threatened towards a feeling of safety by helping them reframe stress and uncertainty by setting up priorities, focusing on what can be controlled and changed, highlighting small improvements and calling attention to the progress that has been made. Download the activity worksheet here.
- Record your wins.
Set up a way where you and your team can record your wins throughout the week. Maybe it’s a big whiteboard at your weekly meeting or an email celebrating the progress that you made throughout the week. Make sure to let others contribute their success stories and encourage everyone to share what they’ve felt proud of this week.
At your next team meeting, try taking a mundane task and working with your team to reframe it to weave purpose into it. For example, organizing patient records might seem extremely mundane, but when you reframe it with purpose, you might reveal that organizing patient records actually helps contribute to lower wait times at the check-in desk and a more positive experience for patients.
- What’s the impact?
Take a situation and discuss with your team the impact of engaging vs disengaging. For example, if you don’t show up for work, what’s the impact on the rest of the team? What’s the impact on yourself? What’s the impact on patient care? What’s the impact on the team when someone shows up to work when it wasn’t their scheduled shift? How does this affect our sense of team and commitment to each other? Remember, this exercise is not about making anyone feel guilty, so do not use specific examples or call anyone out. It’s about inspiring and motivating people to see meaning in their actions and consider their impact on each other and the vision.
Remember, motivating your team means celebrating small wins - even if they seem insignificant. The dopamine high that comes from motivation and striving (like checking off that single item on your to-do list) is a quick win that will increase your team's focus and attention, and ultimately improve your team culture.