Dopamine, Motivation, and the Science Behind Not Giving Up

At the Workday Elevate Digital Experience 2021 in the UK, Shivvy Jervis, a futurist, speaker, and broadcaster, discussed her research on human motivation and how business leaders can best engage an increasingly distributed workforce.

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Employee experiences, including what motivates people, have come under closer scrutiny during the global lockdown. As businesses start to move forward, what are the implications for them and their newly distributed workforce? 

At our Workday Elevate Digital Experience 2021 in the UK, Shivvy Jervis, a futurist, speaker, and broadcaster, explored the topic of humanising innovation and how businesses will need to adapt to meet the changing needs of the workforce. In this article, she discusses her recent research and offers tips on thriving as humans in the digital future.

The global pandemic has had an enormous impact on how we think about human behaviour and how we engage. How does your research dive into this area?

My work involves forecasting scenarios, making sense of signals, and also looking at brain chemistry, because this guides human interaction. For the past year, I’ve been immersed in a new body of research through my forecasting lab. I realized that if we understood what happens in our brains when we’re in a state of motivation, or something has captured our true attention, this could be extremely valuable when we look at what motivates or engages a remote workforce.

Many of the organisations I advise have told me that their biggest hurdle is keeping a distributed workforce motivated and switched on. And, even as we start to move towards a more normal way of working, with a mix of remote and in-office working, this will still apply.

Your research uncovered seven key areas, but I wanted to ask you about one key area today: “The science behind why we give up,” as you have labelled it. Can you tell us about that?

In some shape or form, large or small, in our jobs, activities, home lives, relationships even, we all give up. Humans stall; we have doubts and hesitation. 

That runs into the workplace and becomes just as vital. What happens physiologically, at that crucial moment in time, when we’re on the cusp of considering stepping back from something or fully abandoning and giving up on putting our whole effort into a work activity? At this point, our brains give out something called nociceptin. Now, this is a molecule that pushes down dopamine.

Dopamine, which many of you will have heard of, is the chemical that’s most frequently associated with motivation—with feeling switched on and engaged—and this is very serious stuff. Indeed, it’s been found [dopamine] deficits in our brains can go as far to manifest in the shape of behavioural dysfunctions. In a work context, this doesn’t have to result in a radical move such as thinking you got to quit your job, but it does, more often than not, play out in the smaller day-to-day actions, and they can add up to making you feel disengaged from your daily work.

“It’s vital never to underestimate the core, foundational-level importance that the concept of fairness has to do with engaging people.”

Shivvy Jervis Futurist, Speaker, and Broadcaster

What techniques should leaders focus on to drive employees and keep them engaged?

First, it’s vital never to underestimate the core, foundational-level importance that the concept of fairness has to do with engaging people. This may sound simple, but it’s not. When our employees feel even mildly cheated, the biological process I just described in our brains will start to kick off. Their efforts should feel like they’re equalling a fair reward or acknowledgement. Not just the outcome of the efforts, which is often the case of how merit structures work, but the hard graft, the effort. Because when you feel like you’re being judged unfairly, what do you do? Consciously or not, you pull back on putting in that full effort, and you feel let down.

Number two is to do with rewards. My research found that these are best dished out with a piecemeal approach. Business leaders should set a mix of short- and long-term goals. And, this may sound logical or commonplace, but most of our appraisals and merit structures don’t actually factor this in. 

The third and final piece is that we also learned that by focusing on a failure, especially the expected failures, as leaders we sometimes preempt [success] before the person on the other end has even been unsuccessful. But, for the employee, they’re not seeing an outcome as an out-and-out failure the way you are. We need to be really careful not to have this lead to employees feeling crushed. This dynamic equates to what is called social pain.

In all of the above situations, that pesky old molecule we were talking about, nociception, is emitted in too great a quantity. We just can’t get the right amount of dopamine flowing, which means you feel bouts of demotivation. If leaders can make a conscious effort to just bear these aspects in mind when engaging their workforce, that would go a long way.

In your Workday Elevate session, you talked about human perception of artificial intelligence (AI) and its rise into the mainstream. Can you tell us about that?

Think of this as emotionally aware software, where we see these digital tools that we’re using every day start to perceive, understand, and respond to us in a way that’s far closer to the way that we, as humans, understand. And, [AI] is an approach that I firmly believe we will see applied to our interactions with digital tools over the next two to five years and save us close to 30-40% of the time that we’re currently losing out in tedious processes. So, we’re not trying to fool people that [AI] is a person, but we are trying to give the biological signals [that people] respond to. 

How do we interact with those machines, so they’re working on our terms? We basically put humans at the centre of technology. When you’re responsible for managing complex business processes, you are also responsible for knowledge workers, who painstakingly hunt for information hidden from most automation technology. [AI] is able to learn by observing human behaviour taught by humans to uncover unstructured, hidden data, liberating them to handle exceptions and make the really important decisions only humans can make.

“When you’re responsible for managing complex business processes, you are also responsible for knowledge workers, who painstakingly hunt for information hidden from most automation technology.”

Shivvy Jervis Futurist, Speaker, and Broadcaster

You also discussed how one unintended consequence of remote working during the pandemic has been greater decision-making efficiency. Tell us how you see that?

Despite a tumultuous period for business and humanity, this phase has actually created some rather unexpected opportunities. Think about how many meetings on average it’s taken, within your teams or even in terms of your wider business line, to reach a significant business decision. Are you thinking eight, 12? Does it feel like 15? Well, it might surprise you to learn that a vast study by Deloitte found that it used to take a staggering 18 to 25 meetings for a core business decision to take place. But, since mid-2020, that figure is now seven to nine.

When a crisis hits, some of the aspects of an organisation that were set in stone can be unlocked, because of the pressure a crisis injects on business-as-usual and the need to get the job done. 

Watch the Workday Elevate session here to learn more about the importance of employee engagement.

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