Motivate your Teams with these 4 Neuroscience Keys

Motivating staff and volunteers in your church is often as elusive as nailing Jell-O to a tree. Yet to move our churches from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ we must motivate those around us. Often pastors use the same ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach the marketplace has used for decades. If you do such-and-such you will receive a reward (salary increase, pat on the back, etc). If you don’t, you’ll get something negative: you won’t receive the reward, you will have to step down, etc. We’re now learning that this approach does not work in the long term. However, neuroscience is discovering effective ways to motivate others based on how our brains work. Consider putting these four brain-based ideas into your motivation toolbox.

1. Build interpersonal likeability among team members.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but neuroscientists have discovered a brain-based reason to help your team like each other more. Performance increases when co-workers like each other (Shteynberg & Galinsky, 2011).

  • Leadership application: regularly use team building and social experiences to build common interests and community among your staff, board, and volunteers.

2. Encourage sharing of mistakes.

We all learn from our mistakes. However, some church environments discourage sharing them. We don’t want to look like failures. However, brain studies have discovered that when we observe how a friend (see point 1 above about likeability) learned from his mistake, we learn from it, just as if we ourselves made the same mistake. At the same time we are more open to receiving feedback about our mistakes from our friends (Kang et al., 2010). So the greater community you build, the more easily your team will learn from each other and receive feedback. Such relationships foster a “your mistakes are my mistakes” attitude. As Prov. 27.6 says, Wounds from a friend can be trusted….

  • Leadership application: set an example by sharing your mistakes and what you are learning from them and create an environment that makes it safe for others to share theirs.

3. Repeat the common “why” often and delegate the “how.”

Leaders must constantly seek answers to two key questions: “Why are we doing what we are doing?” and “How do we do it?” A common why (a shared goal: being on the same page), helps churches avoid silos and those same shared goals actually increase personal productivity (Shteynberg & Galinsky, 2011). Pastors should prioritize vision clarity as one of their top three roles, along with leadership development and teaching. When you pair a clear and shared why along with allowing your team to create the how, you will foster an atmosphere of personal freedom and autonomy, a key component for high performing teams (Rock, David & Cox, n.d.).

  • Leadership implication: Stay focused on keeping the why clear and allow staff and volunteers to develop the how.

4. Communicate using personality specific language.

Our brains process motivation in different ways. One study about motivating people to floss their teeth discovered that different sides of the brain light up in a scanner depending on how the message was communicated (Sherman et al., 2006). If a person is more motivated to avoid certain negative things (i.e., floss to avoid bad breath), avoidance type messages motivated them to floss more often. For those motivated more by an approach personality, (if I do such-and-such I will get something good: floss to get great breath), approach messages motivated them to floss more often.

  • Leadership implication: know your team well enough so you can tailor your messages to match personalities either as avoidance ones or as approach ones.

What has worked well to motivate your team?

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Kang, S.K., Hirsh, J.B. & Chasteen, A.L. (2010) Your mistakes are mine: Self-other overlap predicts neural response to observed errors. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 (1), pp.229-232.

Rock, David & Cox, C. SCARF in 2012: updating the social neuroscience of collaborating with others. Neuroleadership Journal, (four).

Sherman, D.K., Mann, T. & Updegraff, J.A. (2006) Approach/Avoidance Motivation, Message Framing, and Health Behavior: Understanding the Congruency Effect. Motivation and emotion, 30 (2), pp.165-169.

Shteynberg, G. & Galinsky, A.D. (2011) Implicit coordination: Sharing goals with similar others intensifies goal pursuit. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47 (6), pp.1291-1294.

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