What are our motivation drivers?   

Let us delve into what makes us do, engage, commit and therefore act in a workplace and generally speaking in our lives.   

First, let us have a quick review of the etymology of the word motivation: it actually comes from the Latin word “motio” i.e. impulsion or movement, and the word “emotion” also comes from that same “motio”.   

 We can now address the four main motivation drivers and have an attempt to link three of them with our different brains as Neurosciences say we have 3 brains: the Reptilian, the Limbic and the Neocortex. Then as to the last motivation, we’ll see that it is by far not the least.  

Here are the factors that drive us into action:    


 It may not sound like a pure motivation factor, but it is a starting condition. We first need to feel safe i.e. we are not threatened by any external cause that could be either a major crisis, a break in our commitment, a merger that could be a danger for our job, an unfair wage. Let us say the company you work for/with is laying off people; in that situation, there is no possible motivation since your safety is at stake; your primary need is not met and therefore there is no possible motivation whatsoever.      

How does this relate to our brain structure?     

Our Reptilian brain is the most ancient one. Our instinct for survival lies here. Said in other words: I attack I flee or I freeze. Being very sensitive, this part of our brain reacts to sensation: I am cold, I am hungry. The Reptilian is activated by body language i.e. the tone of the voice, the look, the body posture, a smile.  

We can see that our first brain is where our first prerequisite for motivation is in action.   


For Daniel Pink, author of Drive, the Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, the first major motivation factor is Autonomy. Allowing people to gain and increase their autonomy level is one of the most motivating factors in our work life. I do agree, but I would offer a bigger motivation driver that encompasses autonomy and the whole relatedness we have to our work, and the one we have with whom we work with. That includes the style of leadership that lives in the company, the process, and the importance of giving/receiving feedback, and empowerment of teams, and the working atmosphere. It is as much about our interactions. As a matter of fact, all that deals with relatedness and relationship is what is most often pointed at and underlined in most surveys about motivation at work. It comes first.  

What about our second brain?     

Our second brain is Limbic.  

It is the one that puzzles us the most both in our personal and professional life for it is very quick and starts like a turbo due to the little amygdala located right in its center.  

Our emotions lie here together with language, intuition, relationships, motivation and memory, and our well-being definitely depends on our Limbic. It captures our emotions, expresses our emotions, captures other people’s emotions (empathy) and takes them into account. It reacts to what it hears and sometimes what it smells. It is activated by a nice memory and appreciates a friendly tone of voice.  

Once again there is an obvious connection between our second major motivation driver and our second brain.  


Then comes the third motivation factor that Pink calls Mastery. It is indeed said that we were born to learn and master new bits of knowledge i.e. we like developing our skills, being competent and performant in things that matter.    

What about our third brain?   

Here we are talking about our neocortex.   

It is in the neocortex our ability to reason, to analyze, but also thinking in abstract ways and be creative. We organize and set up strategies and goals, create a vision, thanks to our neocortex. It enjoys change, new learnings, new knowledge and needs to be fed permanently with new information. One says it is slow (i.e. 3 or 4 seconds are needed for it to start), at least slower than the first two. 80% of our brain cells are in the Cortex.   

It reacts to what it sees and is activated by a visual experience i.e. “Imagine you being a high performing executive, what does it look like?”  


As to the last motivation factor, Pink calls it Purpose, I call it Sense:  what is it that we do that contributes to something bigger than ourselves? What will we leave as a heritage? What are the values we live by (because they say much about what we may be willing to contribute to), and of course what is our way of working together in contribution to something bigger than ourselves? These last two elements are what makes our wall of bricks stand and makes it resilient. This is when we can speak of the company’s mission and purpose and the culture that cements them.  

My conviction is that our brain structure linked to our motivation drivers, would not have any meaning without the concrete to make them stand together.   

If it is possible in a corporation for the people to have a vision/strategy (mastery/neocortex), link it to positive emotions (autonomy-relatedness/limbic) and trigger instinctive actions(safety/reptilian), then the said entities are aligned, can act, and achieve breakthrough performance.   

From there the question is:  In the service of what? There comes Sense/purpose and mission cemented by the corporate culture without which brains and motivation would not have any real and sustainable existence. Be it in a corporate organization or in our personal lives, the process is the same: alignment, motivation, and action to achieve something that makes sense.  

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