The Psychologies Behind Motivation

Rewarding and recognizing employees doesn’t just feel good – it motivates the behaviors that you want to encourage. Of course, motivation comes from within just as much as it’s influenced by external factors. It’s hard-wired in the brain, reinforced through childhood, influenced by employers, and toyed with in games.

The intricacies of any psychology are almost always overwhelming at a glance, but organizing the science into several focused, graspable concepts helps to turn jargon into actionable information. With some basic understanding of how the brain processes appreciation and implements positive motivational behavior, we can tweak our everyday conduct in a way that increases productivity within the home or workplace.

Synthesizing Motivation

Our journey begins in the brain’s most important reward channel: the mesolimbic dopamine system. This system lights up the brain’s memory centers to gather information for future use about a rewarding experience and also tells you to repeat those behaviors that prompt rewards.

Want a quick fix for motivation? Set many small goals instead of a few large ones – this way you’ll trigger dopamine more often and can ride the tubular chemical wave.

Your Childhood

The fixed mindset says that your qualities are unchanging, even over time. These are the people who constantly need to prove themselves with tasks that showcase how smart they are and who avoid any areas where they may fail. (After all, the thought process is this: if you have an innate ability, you shouldn’t have to exert effort.) Setbacks for these people are more likely to discourage them from ever trying again.

“In the fixed mindset it’s not enough just to succeed. It’s not enough just to look smart and talented. You have to be pretty much flawless. And you have to be flawless right away.”

What if you’re not flawless? The growth mindset is much more forgiving.

In this mindset,  intellectual ability is something you can develop through practice. Without worrying about how smart they seem to others, people with this mentality willingly take on challenges to hone their skills.

Employee Appreciation

Mindset is also developed during childhood by family, friends, and educators in a way you might not imagine: praise.

Studies show that praising students for their intelligence drives them towards a fixed mindset whereas praise for effort drives them into the growth mindset. Students are then told that they can choose from two tasks: either challenging or easy. Not surprisingly, those praised for intelligence opt for the easy task that won’t hurt their pride and those praised for effort prefer to take on the more challenging task because it provides a learning opportunity. As soon as the fixed mindset students start to struggle, they lose both their self-confidence and enjoyment of the task at hand. They still do poorly when the problems are made easier. Meanwhile, the students with a growth mindset perform well despite setbacks.

Best Practices For Motivating Your Employees

Knowing the ins and outs of motivation is one thing, but making this knowledge actionable is another. Below are some best practices for keeping your employees motivated in the workplace through recognition and rewards.


  • The most important strategy when rewarding and recognizing employees is making sure that the behavior being honored is in line with specific company values and goals. Give employees concrete feedback on what they did right. In other words, give process-oriented praise.

Employee Involvement

  • Peer-to-peer recognition can be more effective than what can be seen as politically-motivated top-down recognition. Plus, making other people feel good makes you feel good.

Keep It Simple

  • Make recognition a breeze so that people are encouraged to recognize others often.


  • If B.F. Skinner has taught us anything, it’s to reinforce desired behavior immediately so the reward is intimately linked to the action that led to it. To establish a behavior, reward employees every time they perform an action for the first handful of instances. To maintain it, continue rewarding employees but only once every 5 to 7 instances.


  • Sincere praise is more likely to “stick” with employees and personalizing reinforcement is key because it imbues the reward with meaning to the employee. Furthermore, the size of the reward should be relative to the importance of the behavior.


  • Reward employees for showing initiative and inventiveness. Companies succeed when they stay ahead of the curve, and it’s the employees that drive innovation. Plus, rewards of this type get right at the heart of the autonomy, mastery, and purpose trifecta.

A paycheck is not a sufficient method for recognizing employees — it’s actually required of employers by law. Go above and beyond your requirements as an employer and try implementing these tips and practices to keep your employees committed to producing great work and contributing to a healthy, positive workplace environment.