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Why Your Employee Looks Sad (and 3 Easy Ways to Unlock Their Motivation)

The curious case of Mauricio Pochettino tells a powerful story about workplace productivity. Here’s a three-point plan for happy staff members 

On the 1st of June 2019, Mauricio Pochettino strode on to the Wanda Metropolitano turf, oozing pride. Who cares that the Argentine coach ultimately left Madrid with a runners-up medal (final score: Liverpool 2-0 Tottenham Hotspur). That Pochettino’s team made the Champions League final at all was the stuff of pure fantasy.

Three weeks earlier, Spurs sealed their place with a dramatic 96th minute winning goal against Ajax. At half time, they’d trailed 3-0. “Thank you, football,” a tearful Pochettino said, post-match. “Thank you, my players. They are heroes.”

This achievement is all the more extraordinary given Tottenham’s subpar showings in the Premier League that season. Not recruiting a single new player meant a long and gruelling campaign with the same, weary squad. Many tipped them to fail. But when the seemingly impossible became a dizzying reality, all pointed to Pochettino. For he was a master motivator.

Or at least he was.

On the 19th of November 2019, Mauricio Pochettino was fired. Less than six months after Spurs’ first Champions League final, and the misty-eyed miracle of Amsterdam, the Argentine left north London clutching a P45.

The list of reasons is long and varied (a limp start to the season; 7-2 loss at the hands of Bayern Munich; declining bond with the chairman etc). Yet one thing everyone seemed to agree on was an ageless football truism: Pochettino had  “lost the dressing room.”

Swap this for the broader workplace, it’s something every leader faces. Whether world class football coach or head of talent at a bustling firm – manage a team, and at some point you’ll encounter staff that have temporarily lost their mojo.

The science of motivation

The concept of motivation has boggled minds for centuries. In ancient times, Plato believed “that reason was in the head, but that courage was in the chest and appetite the abdomen.” We now know everything goes on in the mind, but certain myths (even lighthearted ones) remain. For example, productivity is intention + caffeine. Distraction lurks on Facebook. Meetings are a to-do list’s mortal enemy.

The real answer lies in our biology. The ‘seeking system’ is a part of the brain that sparks interest in certain tasks. Scratch the (metaphorical) itch and dopamine – aka the ‘happy hormone’ – is released. This can create a “dopamine seeking-reward loop”, where you feel both engaged and inspired. The assumption used to be that dopamine made people seek out pleasure alone, however research shows it makes us “want, desire, seek out, and search.” In other words, dopamine supercharges goal-oriented behaviour. It’s what motivates us.

Why do people lose motivation?

Workplace productivity isn’t a perfect science. Distractions – whether industry gossip, meetings or a mountain of emails – exist. Plus, it’s easy to forget that social media sites are digital slot machines, custom-built to bathe you in dopamine. Venture down that rabbit hole for too long, and there’s little time, or hunger, left for work.

People suffer motivational failures in their job for all sorts of reasons, of course. For Pochettino’s players, it’s believed a harsh training regime of “double sessions, very few days off and hard running started to drag.” This can be true of any business. Too long with one voice, and people can’t help but switch off. Plus, working at warp speed is rarely achievable for long – as proven by startup land’s many casualties.

Another common motivational trap is a lack of self-belief. Like Pochettino’s superstars – who, fearing they weren’t able to succeed, may have lost their drive entirely – workers sometimes drown under pressure. Rather than look for solutions, an unmotivated staffer will write it off as impossible.

Other risks include workers who can’t figure out what went wrong – dismissing it as a mystery, or on forces beyond their control. Some just don’t care. This last one can be due to a mismatch of values – where employee is unable to connect to a task personally or professionally. It might be right person, wrong role. Or plain old bad hiring.

3 proven ways to motivate staff

Remember, no one wants to feel uninspired. The brain’s seeking system works so well because it’s self-driving. Welcome jolts of dopamine power our working days, and make us feel alive. In turn, we want to explore and learn more, basking in the glory of productive satisfaction.

And yet. As shown by the above – and poor Mauricio Pochettino – sometimes individuals veer off course. Here are three subtle fixes to get your workers firing. 

Provide a sense of purpose

“We’re not curing cancer” is a common phrase used by, well, everyone not in medical research. But the stakes needn’t be so high. Motivation strikes when people feel like they’re making a difference – whether small or spectacular.

For example, a University of North Carolina study showed fundraisers’ output soared when the scholarship students they were helping thanked them in person. This made the fundraisers more productive and persistent – raising more than $7,000 extra than colleagues who didn’t speak with students.

If you want to engage your employees, give them skin in the game. Let them interact with the people their work impacts, even if (or especially if) this means learning of problems. When your customers have a face, staff have someone to fight for.

Encourage trial and error

Experimentation can light up a person’s seeking system. Not only does it squash fear of failure – which itself can force employees to play safe – it strengthens bonds among team members, and boosts creative thinking.

According to a 2010 study, presenting change as a chance to experiment and learn – rather than something to be judged by – gets far better results. For instance, manufacturers in Italy conducted tests with Lego, not stoves. It’d be easy to write this off as a game, yet the team’s productivity improved by a quarter. Defects in their products also fell by 30%.

Let them be themselves

People want to be appreciated for who they are, as well as what they do. When a London Business School professor asked his new hires to trade stories of themselves at their best, this eroded the mask new-starters often wear. Staff felt valued for being themselves, which helped them feel comfortable around colleagues. The end result was happier customers and staff far less likely to quit.

At your company, ask whether tearing down walls of officialdom could allow people to better express themselves. Is there something in a jaded staff member’s personality that could inspire greater performance?

Moreover, make them question what makes them good at their job. Research by Gallup shows that merely learning of your strongpoints increases productivity by 7.8%. Teams that focus on strengths daily: 12.5%.

In a workplace, it’s clear the seeking system is key – to happiness and performance alike. And, as one feeds the other, ultimately this creates a production line of productivity.

Don’t suffer the same fate as Spurs’ sadly departed coach – seek to give your staff a daily dose of dopamine. They, and your business, may thank you for it.

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