Coaching & Leadership

Motivation, just simple science?

Arne Van Damme

COO at intuo

A lot of times when you go home after a busy but productive day, there is this very specific feeling that overwhelms you when you make the first contact with Mr Couch. A feeling that you deserve that quality time with your favourite piece of furniture, you’ve earned it. It’s a feeling that we all like, but also need. Because it’s one of the things that drives us, to do the same thing (if not better) the next day.

But is it just doing lots of work that truly motivates us? Of course not. It’s the sum of many little things that are, when combined, powerful enough to convince our brain to go for it.

The question is, what exactly is it that feeds the brain so it will make that decision?

The art of balancing

People are complex; there is no single method of motivating people. But we can offer some influencers that can boost motivation or ignite de-motivation. Some of the discoveries by Frederick Herzberg in HBR:

Things that might demotivate people

  1. Unpleasant managers
  2. A non-competitive or low salary
  3. Long hours

Things that can motivate people

  1. Interesting work
  2. Challenges
  3. Increased autonomy and responsibility

The reason we picked out these influencers is because we wanted to make the case of the classic start-up that many of us have experienced. You take on this huge challenge in an interesting new market where you have a lot of responsibility and autonomy to do your own thing. But in direct contrast, there are often lower salaries, longer hours and less experienced managers that can’t always handle the pressure very well and once too often take out their frustration on others.

So the goal should be to make sure that the motivators always outweigh the demotivators, not always that easy.

As a manager, putting the balance for the motivators is hard. It’s a constant battle between negative side effects of demanding tasks and fleeting feel-good moments. One setback may require several “yes-moments” or a big godsend to make things even or positive.

But your true opponent is not the market, and it’s many cold-blooded players, but it’s the human brain. You could argue that is pretty much always the case, but in this case, our short lesson in biochemistry will explain why your battle seems difficult or unfair at times.

Let’s dive into the constant struggle between dopamine and cortisol.

Dopamine, the short-lived feel-good substance

Pride, satisfaction, and increased self-esteem are all common reactions when being paid a compliment, receiving positive feedback or feeling some form of achievement. Being praised triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps to control the reward and pleasure centres of the brain. As well as making us feel good, dopamine can also contribute to innovative thinking and creative problem-solving at work. These positive effects, however, are relatively short-lived, and for praise to have an enduring impact on employee engagement, it needs to be regularly offered, and more importantly: done the right way.

Cortisol, a sustained-release tablet

When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalised or minimised, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking centre of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviours. These effects can last for 26 hours or more. So compared to the dopamine, cortisol has a bigger and longer lasting impact. For more information, you can find a great article on

How to anticipate and keep it in check?

Having frequent one-on-one’s with your team members are the best moments to detect some sort of imbalance. These moments are opportunities to discuss the things that make people love their work or leave them unhappy in their job. Putting yourself in a role as coach and listener rather than the one that steers the conversation is crucial in identifying the true balance of your people’s motivation.

5 tips to have a good one-on-one

If you don’t have one-on-ones, you’re missing out on a crucial opportunity to unlock the true potential of your team, but also to motivate them and letting them contribute in a meaningful way.

  • Don’t do it at your office where you as a manager are in a leading role, find some neutral ground
  • Ask questions and wait for the answer, even if it takes a while
  • Identify and cross-check the things that motivate your people
  • Aim at helping them in personal growth, don’t solely focus on their tasks
  • Talk about their short and long-term objectives, both personal and professional
  • Download the ROI calculator