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Motivation: A Neuroscience Perspective

When it comes to supporting change, what gets in the way of moving forward from a Neuroscience perspective? What can we do to enhance motivation or help change along when motivation is low?

Motivation is one of the most valuable forces we have when it comes to pushing through the discomfort associated with transformation and change. It is no surprise then that we invest in motivation-supporting efforts. We focus on building trust, engagement, understanding, acceptance, inclusion, commitment to action, developing deep meaningful insight, and reducing threat, all with a deeper intention to enhance motivation. However, based on Neuroscience, we may be putting too much of the weight on motivation alone to work through the discomfort associated with change; both when people are motivated, and when they are not.

Neuroscience sheds a fascinating new light on this topic. It highlights how we can support people to increase motivation, but also how we can supplement motivation with additional forces to enhance change adoption, or resolve the discomfort associated with change even in the absence of motivation.

Why Do We Need Motivation to Change?

To best understand how to increase motivation or support people through change in its absence, we may first benefit greatly from learning why motivation is needed in the first place:

  • Change causes discomfort as a result of 2 main causes: perceived threat and the need to rewire the brain.

  • Each one of these discomfort sources is very strong and can block change on its own.

  • Discomfort associated with the need to rewire the brain comes up when Unlearning is part of change and results from the fact strong preexisting neuro-synaptic pathways are "competing" with new, desirable ways of doing things.

  • Discomfort associated with perceived threat can be the result of fear of the unknown, lack of trust, insufficient relatedness (not feeling connected), loss of status, loss of certainty, insufficient autonomy, lack of fairness and other conflicting priorities (for example, I may want to be more assertive but want to avoid the threat of others not liking me as a result).

  • To work through the discomfort and adopt change, we need counter forces. Motivation is one such great counter force.

  • In some cases motivation is very strong, and sometimes a small degree of motivation alone is more than enough.

  • However, there are times when motivation, strong as it may be, is losing the "battle" against the disruptive forces of change and other situations in which motivation is too low to begin with.

So we do everything we can to reduce threat and increase motivation. This is obvious and critical, but motivation is all alone there trying to overcome the discomfort associated with change AND we may not be doing enough to address a whole second source of discomfort.

Neuroscience Offers Us Additional Orange Arrows

But motivation does not have to and should not be our only way to work through the different sources of discomfort associated with change.

A few examples of powerful new orange arrows include:

  • Providing people with skills to respond more effectively to discomfort: Neuroscience-based diagnostic tools can accurately identify which specific ways individuals, teams, and cultures respond to discomfort and which skills are needed for people respond more effectively. Providing people with more effective skills to respond to discomfort supports motivation in working through the discomfort associated with change.

  • Learning how to guide people through the process of rewiring the brain: Unlearning is a process with clear stages and obstacles between stages. Knowing how to guide people through it helps manage the discomfort associated with rewiring the brain - the second big blue arrow that creates discomfort in addition to perceived threat.

  • Distinguishing between a "knowing" or logical choice and an emotional choice: This is related to enhancing motivation (in addition to investing in the direction of reducing threat). There are specific Neuroscience-based techniques for knowing how to get people to make powerful choices in the presence of emotions (rather than committing to change because I know it's good for me or because I know I should).

  • Overcoming the "Knowing-Doing" gap: Much of why we don't adopt change into practice has to do with the fact the brain has different systems so certain change designs lead to understanding while other change designs lead to adoption in practice...if we learn how to engage the right systems in the brain in a way that leads more quickly to acquisition in practice, less motivation will be needed to achieve the same change adoption results.

Why are we putting all the weight of pushing through the discomfort associated with change on motivation alone?

What is the Contribution of Neuroscience to Difficult Change in this Context?

Ask yourself:

  • How can you add more orange arrows (in addition to focusing on increasing motivation) to help coaching clients, teams, and entire organizations go through difficult change more successfully?

  • How can Neuroscience principles support change adoption when motivation is low?

Are you familiar with any other Neuroscience-based forces that can support motivation in the context of getting past the discomfort associated with change that you are willing to share?

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