Three Ways to Use Cognitive Science to Motivate Employees

March 7, 2019

Research into human cognition suggests that the brain optimizes more for efficiency than for accuracy. Our minds think one thing, but our brains often have us do something else. Unless someone is acutely aware of these biases (and even if they are), they are likely to be affected by them.

While the study of cognitive science is relatively new, people have been using many of these “tricks” for all of human history. Any good sales person applies many of these tricks on a daily basis to do their jobs well. There is great power in knowing a little about cognitive science and how to apply it.

Below are a few tools that can be useful for motivating your employees if applied sincerely. These tools can rarely be used in isolation, and they beg to be complemented by mentoring, a positive management style, and continued positive reinforcement.

  1. Pygmalion effect. Like in “My Fair Lady,” the Pygmalion effect is when a respected individual (in this case, a manager) tells a person they can do something that is hard, impossible, or even crazy. To work, it requires that the manager be respected by the employee and that they have genuine confidence in that person. The confidence must be communicated strongly and repeated over time. Setting ambitious goals and convincing someone they can achieve them often results in incredible things being accomplished.
  2. Reciprocity. Human beings are hardwired to loathe being in debt to others. When someone does a favor for you, you typically want to discharge the debt as quickly as possible, even if it requires you to do a bigger service in return. Managers who continually help employees, with no visible self-serving motive, will build credit with employees. Mentoring, listening, appreciating, and rewarding (even small rewards) are great ways to perform acts of service for your employees, and employees will usually want to repay them. When there is no way to repay in kind, these acts will often develop into trust, loyalty, and a willingness to take on difficult assignments. This in turn can be used to show your confidence in them which perpetuates the cycle.
  3. Self-consistency bias. People see themselves a certain way, and they will work hard to be consistent with this view of themselves. A manager can easily seed positive ideas about an employee, although the ideas need to be aligned with the employee’s self-narrative. If a particular seed is based in reality and sown frequently, it will likely take root. By tying appreciation to their character, they will integrate this belief into their view of themselves. This also helps an employee create and maintain a positive self-image, resulting in them being happier.

Cognitive scientists have already identified over 180 heuristics and biases in humans. Not all of them apply to management, but utilizing the ones that do can have huge benefits for an employee’s morale, engagement, and productivity, and ultimately their career. To be applied effectively the manager must always act in the employee’s best interest, and the employee needs to perceive the manager this way. Using cognitive science in management takes time and patience, so expect results in weeks or months, not days.

Nowhere does the use of cognitive science have a greater impact than with Millennials. The omnipresent myth of Millennials being horrible workers is simply not true. They are not motivated the same way their parents were, which has caught many managers by surprise. Millennials require more of a personal focus on how they are growing and impacting the business. Cognitive science techniques are invaluable in aiding them in establishing and executing on a positive vision of themselves in the workplace.

Helping your people flourish is vital to your success as a manager, so leverage cognitive science to better motivate Millennials and older workers alike. After all isn’t it nicer to work in an environment where people are happy and driven?

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