Seeking is More Motivating than Finding

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SeekingNeuroscience is indicating that we get our biggest thrill from the opportunity to pursue the fruits of the world, and the act of seeking the fruits is far more appealing than consuming the fruits we find. Research indicates that we have a “seeking” emotional system, and we get the most pleasure from activating this system. This discovery can provide some valuable insight for motivating teams.

First, consider that in laboratory tests, animals will over-excitedly self-stimulate their seeking emotional system as though there is nothing more important. Researchers have set up experiments where laboratory animals can self-stimulate this emotional system by pressing a button which applies electric jolts to the brain region responsible for the seeking emotion. When the animals are given the choice of either stimulating this emotional system or eating to stay alive, they will choose to stimulate this system. Of course humans may not make the same choice, but it is an indication of how rewarding it is to stimulate this emotional system.

How does this help us motivate business teams? We can activate our seeking emotional system through primal, direct means, in a business setting. When this system is activated, it boosts our motivation level for all activity, and as an extra benefit, it arouses our frontal neocortex, which is responsible for strategic thinking.

The seeking emotional system is activated by novelty. People get jazzed by the opportunity to learn or experience something new. As a leader of teams, we can keep things fresh by shifting some of the responsibilities periodically. Put people in new roles and give them new opportunities as often as possible. When feasible, organize work in projects that have a distinct beginning and ending, so teams periodically get to “start over” with a new set of objectives. Remember that even the best job in the world gets boring after you’ve been doing it for awhile.

The seeking emotional system is aroused by somatic, body-based methods such as rhythmic breathing, deep laughter, spontaneous play, and musical beats that resonate with the body. These techniques increase the level of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the central nervous system, which arouses motivation and can be a quick fix for burnout.

Similar to Dan Pink’s work on motivation, where he concludes that external rewards are not motivating for knowledge workers, I agree that conventional, external rewards are not the key to motivation. However, there is one conventional reward that should get a higher priority: time off.  Time off allows us to activate our seeking emotional system off the job. For many of us, there’s nothing more thrilling than exploring a new country or engaging in a new sport. When we have these opportunities, it boosts our motivational level for all activities, including work.

As we learn more from neuroscience about the incredible power of group emotions, we see reasons to adopt techniques beyond the ordinary. For more on shaping team emotions to increase creativity and performance, get notified of the upcoming book Primal Teams: Harnessing the Incredible Power of Group Energy or sign up for a monthly summary of articles.



About the Author:

Jackie Barretta is a thought leader sharing ideas on how to create a more just and peaceful world. She is also a CIO, and in this role she has led large organizations with hundreds of employees through challenging times and major transformations.
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  1. Merooj  April 11, 2013

    ‘Self stimulation” is produced (sourced by) “Desire”, and even though it can be evoked by physical external stimulants (like electricity), it can not be used as managerial tool, and implemented artificially.

  2. Youcef Dridi  April 11, 2013

    Dear Jackie,

    I can only confirm what the article says, from personal experience. I am a turnaround manager and my job is to fix the issues associated with the value creation/degradation chain of activities a company does to exist, just like an assembly line worker would do it.

    Management as a technology, didn’t change much in more than a 100 years.

    Its paramount goal remains compliance, its central ethic remains control, and its chief tools remain extrinsic motivators. It leaves it largely out of sync with the nonroutine, right-brain abilities on which many of the world’s ecoomies now depend.

    Management is still largely built on the assumption that to take action or move forward, we need a prod (that absent a reward or punishment, we’d remain happily and inertly in place). It also presumes that once people do get moving, they need a direction – that without a firm and reliable guide, they’d wander.

    I have strong evidence that on the contrary, our basic nature is to be curious and self-directed, at all levels of the corporation, and if even more at lower levels.

    When it’s not the case, it’s because something flipped the workforce’s “default setting”, which needs to be fixed, but not with a patch.

    As Pink said: “Maybe it is time to toss the very word “management” into the linguistic ash leap alongside “icebox” and horseless carriage”. This era doesn’t call for better management. It calls for a renaissance of self-direction.”


    Youcef DRIDI

  3. Pamina Mullins  April 16, 2013

    What an interesting article Jackie. Humans were indeed designed for challenges and seeking – it brings out the best in us.

  4. Lydia Kan  April 16, 2013

    Your work looks terrific, Jackie; thank you for sharing. Seems like it falls neatly beside recent research at Harvard — The neuroscience of leadership – ‎Rock; Social intelligence and the biology of leadership – ‎Goleman; Leadership and Neuroscience: Can We Revolutionize – Waldman and a very good Strategy & Business article: “That’s The Way We (Used To) Do Things Around Here,” by Jeffrey Schwartz, Pablo Gaito, and Doug Lennick.

  5. Terry Barber  April 24, 2013

    Inspiring research! The strong desire to continue seeking, even when the emotional payoff is not just to have more, reinforces the need of leaders to cast a vision that helps channel the seekers energy.

  6. Ade McCormack  May 6, 2013

    Very interesting. I can see how this fits in with the hunter-gatherer mind set, which I believe we still have despite ‘recent’ changes in our environment.

  7. Andrea de Wattignar  May 6, 2013

    Jackie thanks for sharing this article. It’s exciting to see the many resources we can draw on from the field of neuroscience to facilitate greater fulfillment in our working lives. Out with grey cubicles, mediocrity and isolation; inspiring and productive workplaces will be the norm!

  8. Vilhas Desai  May 6, 2013

    Very good article. I do agree that people look for novelty especially knowledge workers and that keep them motivated. They enjoy beginning and ending & move on to new one. Project based approach give them the change they are looking at. I have implemented this concept with my current organisation in Human Resources Function (Where I belong to). However one thing I realize while implementing the concept that those involved in this projects, if they are change averse, then it may not motivate them. They may look at more static environment than the change one.

  9. Peg Gillard  May 6, 2013

    Just a pilgrimage on my Harley heading off to anywhere everywhere would suffice! I love the lessons I learn along the way and the challenges I must overcome.

  10. Shannon Patterson  May 6, 2013

    Great article! Thanks. I look forward to your book….

  11. Nik Nikkel  May 20, 2013

    This was a good, useful article. I do some speaking and writing on motivation and how, for the most part we have it wrong, i.e. bonuses, etc. and motivational events. I read about the seeking being one of our primary emotions. I think there is a world of opportunity for individual happiness and business serendipity in understanding how to create and nurture the stimulation and satisfaction of the seeking emotion.

  12. Richard Dickerson  May 20, 2013

    Excellent article! It’s refreshing to have MORE validation around non-monetary drivers. Thank you Jackie.

  13. Pamela Brooks  May 20, 2013

    Great article, I have noted in a recent study I was working on, that this external motivation is a big factor come retirement. Individuals who have maintained balance and have plans and things to look forward to have an easier transition and are more productive up to the point that they retire. Would love to look at this more specifically, as this was just an observation made while focusing on other key issues.

  14. Mariano Alvarez Caches  May 20, 2013

    really appreciate your article. I agree with you that the neurosciences have opened a path for the development of cognitive qualities needed in the working world. I work in a human resources consultant in Argentina where we are dedicated to applying neurocognitive evaluation techniques for the selection of personnel, and career plans. We have also developed training courses on motivation, stress management, human resources applied neuroscience and creativity. I’m interested to get in touch and share information to synergize our task.

  15. Anita Cabell  July 21, 2013

    Thank you Jackie – it’s wonderful that you’re writing so articulately on this important subject. James, I also enjoyed your comments. Did you see the work of Grant Soosalu and co on the subject of Multiple Brain Integration I wonder?

    Back to motivation…I had an interesting experience recently working within a company who were really struggling. Business was bad, revenues were horrible and the working culture / environment seemed unhappy at least on the surface. After conducting their annual organizational health survey that particular office were found to have the highest happiness rating of their global peers. When we analyzed the response we found that though emotionally painful for them, employees there were very ‘happy’ to be so engaged in the struggle to find a solution to their business problems and their level of cognitive and emotional engagement was extremely high. Their resilience was off the charts during that period too.

    Since that learning, I’ve experimented with trying to create these high pressured Think Tank type of engagements (have heard them called ‘skunk teams’ too sometimes) within other companies where small task forces are charged with finding solutions to knotty problems in short time frames. The results are always exciting!

    Good luck with the book Jackie – look forward to reading it!


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