“Their motivation was completely gone.”

At first, the doctors had no idea what could have caused the changes. Their families said they had become different people.

“It was as if the part of their brain where motivation lives had completely disappeared…They hadn’t become less intelligent or less aware of the world. Their old personalities were still inside, but there was a total absence of drive or momentum. Their motivation was completely gone.”

After years of research, they finally discovered the cause, and it points to how we can improve effectiveness and engagement at work.

When your striatum goes dark

The quote above was from Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg. A neurologist was describing patients who had blood vessels burst near their striatum, a part of the brain that coordinates a range of cognitive functions, including decision-making and motivation.

Though patients were normal in all other regards, they seemed markedly less interested in things. They would respond to instructions but wouldn’t take any initiative. For example, a man who had been known for his strong work ethic told his doctor, “I just lack spirit…I have no go. I must force myself to wake up in the morning.”

Sure ways to inhibit motivation

Over the past few decades, Duhigg cited a wide range of research that made the connection between decision-making and motivation.

“Motivation is triggered by making choices that demonstrate to ourselves that we are in control. The specific choice we make matters less than the assertion of control. It’s this feeling of self-determination that gets us going…
‘The need for control is a biological imperative,’ a group of Columbia University psychologists wrote in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences in 2010. When people believe they are in control, they tend to work harder and push themselves more. They are, on average, more confident and overcome setbacks faster…One way to prove to ourselves that we are in control is by making decisions. “Each choice - no matter how small - reinforces the perception of control and self-efficacy., the Columbia researchers wrote.”

When you lose the ability to make decisions, you lose your sense of control and motivation. It happens when certain parts of your brain are damaged. It also happens when workplaces rob you of a sense of autonomy. 

The zombie apocalypse at work

Recently, I was talking with an executive about employee engagement at his firm and I was struck by the language he used. 

“They’re like zombies. You pass them in the lobby, going from meeting to meeting. There’s no eye contact. There’s no spark.”

In some workplaces, for example, control is embedded in a process and even the smallest actions require approval from someone else. Or, possibly worse, there’s ambiguity about who can decide what, and decision-making is negatively reinforced as people ask “Who gave you authority to do that?” Your work day is driven by systemic interruptions and your time largely scheduled by others.

A feeling of learned helplessness spreads throughout the organization. People start to believe their “locus of control” is external instead of internal, It’s “they” and “them” who are responsible for decisions, and never “I” or “me.”

The remedy

The treatment that was effective for some patients with striatal damage can also serve as a remedy for apathy at work: you help people develop the habit of making decisions and feeling in control. Here’s a quote from Carol Dweck, the researcher noted for her work on growth mindsets, who spoke to Duhigg for his book:

“‘Internal locus of control is a learned skill…training is helpful, because if you put people in situations where they can practice feeling in control, where that internal locus of control is reawakened, then people can start building habits that make them feel like they’re in charge of their own lives - and the more they feel that way, the more they really are in control of themselves.”

The choices people make are even more powerful when linked to purpose: “They convince us we’re in control and they endow our actions with larger meaning."

It’s why Working Out Loud circles focus so much on autonomy and purpose, on taking small steps over the course of 12 weeks till you develop a habit that makes you feel in control. You experience earning your own access to people, knowledge, and possibilities.

Helping people develop an internal locus of control is relevant to any organization. In an extreme example, Duhigg cites the Marines general who revamped their basic training. The program that was famous for breaking down recruits and instilling strict discipline evolved “to force trainees to take control of their own choices…teaching a ‘bias toward action’…We’re trying to teach them that you can’t just obey orders.”

As human beings, the feeling of control is “a biological imperative,” and we need to practice developing it. The modern workplace needs us to practice too. Work requires more than people who just sit and await instructions. It needs people to feel more fully alive and motivated, with a bias toward action and meaning.

We don’t have to accept work the way it is. We have choices, and we have to practice making them.