HOW TO

Why People Lose Motivation — and What Managers Can Do to Help – Dan Cable

According to a Professor of Organizational Behavior at London Business School, Dan Cable, every leader has, at some point, dealt with a person — or, worse, a group of people — who has lost motivation. It’s frustrating, isn’t it? As much as we’ve been there ourselves, sometimes it’s hard to sympathize with others who are disengaged from work and unproductive as a result. Sometimes, we view their unhappiness as a bug in their mental makeup — and, therefore, we think they should be able to suck it up and snap out of it.

Although it’s easy to fall into this mind-set as a leader, this type of thinking is counterproductive and it ignores the underlying reasons why people lose their passion for what they do (or never find it to begin with).

In order to get at the crux of the problem, it’s crucial to understand that as humans we want to feel motivated and to find meaning in the things that we do. It’s part of our biology. In fact, there’s a part of our brains called the seeking system that creates the natural impulses to learn new skills and take on challenging but meaningful tasks. When we follow these urges, we receive a jolt of dopamine — a neurotransmitter linked to motivation and pleasure — which make us want to engage in these activities even more. And, when our seeking systems are activated — motivation, purpose and energy increase in us. We feel more alive.

Exploring, experimenting, learning — this is the way we’re supposed to live and work. The problem is, too many workers aren’t able to partake in these activities because the way our organizations are run is preventing them from doing so.

Despite these difficulties, it is possible for leaders to activate their employees’ seeking systems without a large overhaul to organization-wide policies and culture. There are three small but consequential nudges that trigger employees’ seeking systems:

  1. Encourage them to play to their strengths.
  2. Create opportunities to experiment.
  3. Help them personalize the purpose of the work.

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