Discoveries in the brain science of neuropsychology reveal the best way for leaders to motivate employees is to get them to motivate themselves.
That’s the advice from neuropsychologist Steve Swavely in his book, Ignite Your Leadership: The Power Of Neuropsychology To Optimize Team Performance (2023, Indie Books International).
Swavely says almost every business owner and leader wonders, “What’s the best ways for me to motivate my team?”
“Leaders always respond with surprise to my answer, which is science has clearly shown you can’t motivate anyone except yourself,” says Swavely. “Motivation is an internal state that only individuals can influence for themselves.”
The better question is: “How do I engineer a work environment that prompts my team to self-motivate?”
Swavely is the founder and president of Evolution Leadership Coaching. He also serves as an advisory board member for the Truist Leadership Institute.
“Self-motivation as opposed to motivation is a subtle but important distinction,” says Swavely. “As a leader, you can’t directly affect the motivation of anyone on your team. That power is totally outside your control. What you can control is the creation of an engaging environment in which your team will motivate themselves.”
According to Swavely, neuropsychology has identified multiple important environmental variables leaders can leverage to create optimal engagement.
Neuropsychology teaches that wired into everyone’s brain is a primitive survival decision and related behavior of approach or avoid. When leveraged properly, this hard wiring has great power to build an optimally performing team. If mismanaged, it can also be the root cause of a poorly performing team.
Workplace success is all about the work environment created by the team leader.
“My approach to helping leaders motivate their team leverages this knowledge and utilizes the engineering of seven environmental variables that influence, what neuropsychologists call motivational brain networks,” says Swavely.
The human brain has many motivational brain networks that create the brain’s motivational system.
“Seven beliefs are particularly effective in increasing motivation in the work setting,” says Swavely. “Think of each of them as a lever leaders can use to engineer the optimal work environment.”
Here are the seven belief levers a leader can use to inspire positive self-motivation:
Social Acceptance. A belief that one is accepted by and has positive relationships with those they work with, especially the leader.
Social Equity. A belief that one is treated fairly and equitably by those they work with, especially the leader.
Social Appreciation. A belief that one is appreciated and viewed as an important contributor by those they work with, especially the leader.
Role Certainty. A belief that one has clarity about what success in their role looks like and the rewards that success will bring.
Role Autonomy. A belief that one has an appropriate amount of control to complete the tasks of their role in a way they think best.
Role Fit. A belief that one’s skills are a great match for the challenges of their role—being neither overqualified nor underqualified.
Role Purpose. A belief that one’s work role supports a larger purpose.
“Leaders have great control over these levers that either create an environment that facilitates team motivation and engagement or discourages it,” says Swavely. “However, most leaders create their team’s working environment unconsciously and unintentionally versus a conscious and intentional way. They don’t even know the seven levers exist.”
Everyone has these motivational brain networks, yet few are aware of them because they function in the brain as antivirus software does in a computer. They’re running in the background, outside our awareness, scanning the environment for potential threats to avoid.
However, unlike a computer’s antivirus software, these networks are also scanning the environment for potential reward opportunities to approach.
“I classify three of the seven networks as social,” says Swavely. “These are focused primarily on human system factors related to the need for affiliation and approval. The other four I classify as primarily role related, focused on technical and operational system factors related to the need for successful role completion and achievement. This distinction can provide important clues about where to focus improvement efforts.”
Before founding Evolution Leadership Coaching, Swavely was the director of consulting at Truist Leadership Institute. He also served as the director of client solutions during his tenure there.
Swavely received his PhD in clinical neuropsychology from Georgia State University.