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By Allison Ebner


I get it. There is a lot on the plates of HR professionals and leaders in today’s organizations. From managing the continual COVID issues and absences to creating a sustainable compensation program to managing basic civility and respect in our organizations — the challenges just keep coming. But what if there was a culture and retention trick or ‘hack’ that we can use to help us build employee engagement, manage expectations, and help us build a high-performance team? Let’s take a cue from the neuroscientists that study human behavior for a living.

More specifically, they research motivation and what drives people to think and behave in a certain way. This research allows us to ‘peek under the hood’ of the human brain and help us understand how to pull the right levers that influence the behavior of our employees. Imagine the things we can accomplish if we could get everyone behaving the way we want them to!

So, what’s the key to unlocking the mystery? It turns out that why we work determines how well we work. Let that sink in for a minute. In the 1980s, professors Edward Deci and Richard Ryan from the University of Rochester concluded that there are six main reasons why people work.

Lindsay McGreggor and Neel Doshi adapted that thought process for the modern workplace in their book Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Motivation. In fact, they break the six reasons into the following: play, purpose, potential, emotions, economics, and inertia or apathy. The first three of these motives tend to increase and enhance performance, while the other three motives hurt performance. They even have a name for all of this: ToMo, which stands for total motivation.

Their theory talks about adaptive performance as an extension of tactical performance. Tactical performance is about whether you can build the widget, write the code, or do the transactional thing. Adaptive performance is about asking people to transcend their knowledge and skills and adapt to a changing situation to achieve an outcome.

And here’s why this is important: the tools we’ve been using to motivate people don’t work anymore. You’re all seeing this in your own organizations, right? Aggressive and bottom-line-only-focused managers and leaders are actually driving people out of organizations in huge numbers. If we want to change performance outcomes, we’ll need to find a way to optimize the purpose, play, and potential ToMo in our employees.

What are some of the ways you can optimize the right ToMo in your organization? Here are just a few: well-designed roles and job descriptions, offering individual career ladders and paths, creating a sense of community and transparency, developing leaders who balance accountability and empathy, and redesigning your feedback and performance-management processes.


Allison Ebner is director of Membership & Partnerships at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. This article first appeared on the EANE blog; eane.org