Historically, organizations have operated under the assumption that compensation is the primary motivator for results, but scientific evidence suggests that what motivates employees and drives performance is much more nuanced. In a UNC Executive Development white paper, Kimberly Schaufenbuel, program director at UNC Executive Development, explains how the science of motivation in the brain can be applied to improve employee motivation in the workplace.

The Importance of Motivation

By understanding why people do what they do and using those findings to motivate employees, you can achieve improved organizational performance, says Schaufenbuel.

Motivated employees:

  1. Are more highly engaged.
  2. Can better handle the unease of uncertainty.
  3. Make for better problem-solvers.
  4. Are more innovative, creative and customer focused.

Organizations with highly motivated employees:

  1. Are more profitable.
  2. Have higher levels of customer satisfaction.
  3. Have higher levels of employee retention.

Motivation Is All in the Head

Until recently, researchers could not substantiate motivational theories. But now, neuroscience is giving scientists new understanding into human motivation, providing evidence that suggests that the source of motivation is all in the head.

Referencing a Harvard Business Review article written by Harvard professors Nitin Nohria, Boris Groysberg and Linda-Eling Lee, Schaufenbuel explains that motivation is created in the brain when dopamine is released and makes its way to an area of the brain called the “nucleas accumbens,” which triggers feedback that predicts whether something good or bad is about to happen. That prediction prompts the motivation to respond by minimizing a predicted threat or maximizing a predicted reward. While dopamine has long been thought to be the happy neurotransmitter, it is actually the reward and punishment transmitter.

For example, studies have found that dopamine levels in the brains of soldiers increase when they hear gunfire. That dopamine causes the motivation to avoid a predicted threat. In another study, Vanderbilt researchers compared the dopamine levels of go-getters versus slackers. They discovered that the dopamine levels in areas of the brain associated with reward were higher for go-getters. In slackers’ brains, however, dopamine was found in areas associated with emotion and risk.

What can you learn from these neuroscience discoveries? Schaufenbuel says that the brain can be retrained to increase a person’s motivation for rewards, which can lead to better engagement, employee productivity and retention.

The Four Behavioral Drivers

According to Nohria and fellow Harvard professor Paul Lawrence, there are four fundamental patterns of human behavior: drive to acquire, drive to defend, drive to bond, and drive to learn.

Why does this matter?

“When HR and talent managers understand what drives a person’s behavior in this context, they can design systems, policies, procedures, and practices that will appeal to each driver,” Schaufenbuel writes. She notes that it is essential for HR and talent managers to think holistically when taking actions to address each driver. For instance, “fulfilling the drive to bond has the most effect on employee commitment, but other drivers will influence how strong that bonding is.”

Schaufenbuel provides examples of how to use the four behavioral drivers to improve employee motivation.

Drive to Acquire

The drive to acquire relates to the acquisition of status for immediate gratification. The optimum way to fulfill this drive is by launching a company reward system. Nohria, Groysberg and Lee suggest that employers assess how well they differentiate between good and average performance and how well they identify and reward high performers versus average and low performers. There should be an association between rewards and employee performance.

Drive to Defend

The drive to defend must be triggered by a threat to become active. When this happens, Lawrence and Nohria advise employers to identify the cause of the threat rather than focus on the reaction to the threat and develop performance management and resource allocation processes. There should be transparency in these processes to build trust and equitable treatment of employees. To reduce the drive to defend, companies like Aflac have committed to improving their employees’ quality of life through training, scholarship and on-site child-care.

Drive to Bond

The drive to bond allows like-minded people with similar interests to work well together. Fulfilling the drive to bond can have a dramatic effect on employee commitment, Lawrence and Nohria say. Effective feedback is vital to fostering the drive to bond and should include leadership support, coaching and frequent encouragement.

Drive to Learn

The drive to learn fulfills people’s natural desire to make sense of their world and themselves. Job design is a critical factor when looking to appeal to the drive to learn. Jobs should be created and defined in such a way that they are meaningful to employees and foster a sense of contribution to the organization.

If you understand what drives a person’s behavior you can better design systems, policies, procedures and practices that will motivate each driver in your organization. 

Social Needs Are Hardwired in the Brain

Like Lawrence and Nohria’s four fundamental patterns of human behavior, David Rock’s SCARF model combines motivational theory with neuroscience.

According to Schaufenbuel, Rock, who is the director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, developed the SCARF model as a framework for understanding how the brain responds to perceived threats and rewards. Based on Rock’s model, “a job should not be viewed as a business transaction—do the work and get paid—but rather as a part of a social system in which the brain is rewarded (or punished) based on how well the business environment is meeting an employee’s need for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.”


A perceived change in status, such as formal feedback, can trigger either a threat response or a reward response. This is dependent on how the perceived change is presented. Rock suggests that HR and talent management professionals instruct leaders to provide feedback that bolsters the recipient’s status and avoid feedback that threatens it.


According to Rock, the brain conserves energy so that it can better respond to future threats or rewards. When certain, the brain can predict the next steps based on patterns, allowing it to operate with less energy. When uncertain, the brain defers to its basic survival mode and uses more energy in an attempt to understand the situation. When the perceived uncertainty is high, the brain cannot detect patterns to resolve the uncertainty. This can lead to panic and poor decision-making in the workplace.


The more autonomous a person feels, the more resistant to stress he or she will be. The less autonomous a person feels, the more susceptible to stress he or she will be. Autonomy and certainty are also related. The more autonomous a person feels, the more certain he or she will feel about the future and vice versa. Rock says that providing even a little autonomy can help employees.


“The ability to feel trust and empathy about others is shaped by whether they are perceived to be part of the same social group,” Rock says. Relatedness has to do with how the brain perceives a friend versus a foe. If the brain perceives a new person as different from them, that will lead to uncomfortable feelings. Once that person is more “known,” the brain will disarm the threat response and welcome the newcomer as “one of us.” Rock advises organizations foster a sense of teamwork in their company cultures.


If a situation is perceived by the brain to be unfair, it will respond with distrust and hostility. In the workplace this means that trust and collaboration will not exist when people perceive others as unfair. Fairness includes the shared feeling of employees that they are treated with dignity, have job security, and that they are compensated equitably.

According to Rock, “social motivators like these will activate dopamine in the brain and trigger the brain’s reward systems.” Employers should increase rewards to minimize threats in these areas to best motivate employees—rewards other than money to appeal to employees’ desire for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Rock advises organizations to design motivation strategies that appeal to the social aspect of the brain to develop a sense of association with the organization.

The Bottom Line

Frameworks like Lawrence and Nohria’s drivers of human behavior model and Rock’s SCARF model infuse motivation theory with neuroscience to show how HR and talent management professionals can develop their organizational culture and workplace environment to motivate employees, increase engagement, and improve the bottom line. These are strategic methods to keep in mind when creating incentives for your teams and creating new roles and responsibilities for your employees. Motivated employees outperform unmotivated employees in productivity, innovation, creativity, customer service, engagement and retention—all of which can transform a business.