When I was first looking into getting a cat, I trawled the internet for ideas on how to convert my boxy, bland apartment into a kitty fun-haven. I was concerned that without an outside area to explore, my apartment might not be a suitable habitat for my feline friend. As it turns out, some of the same things that keep my cat interested in putting up with me are strangely relevant to keeping employees interested in putting up with work.
In my search I came across an article1 that mentioned the “seeking circuit” activated in a cat’s brain while it’s hunting. The dopamine2 released in this area of the cat’s brain motivates the hunting behaviour commonly seen in their tireless pursuit of the uncatchable laser dot.
I found this fascinating. The article seemed to imply that a cat’s enjoyment and motivation is in the act of chasing their prey, not necessarily in the catching of it. It might explain why Pepper is so disinterested in her toys once she has successfully caused them to stop moving. However, this notion of motivation by pursuit rather than motivation by reward seems somewhat contrary to traditional reward based models of motivation.
“…a cat’s enjoyment and motivation is in the act of chasing their prey…”
Traditional models of motivation (and cats)
In a total affront to the works of Taylor, Maslow, Mayo, McGregor, and other such noble scholars, I condense and summarise their findings thus:
1: The cat has a need. Perhaps the cat is hungry. It’s probably 4am.
2: The cat performs a behaviour to attempt to resolve this need. Let’s say, the cat claws you repeatedly in the eyelids and screams like a banshee.
3: The behaviour has a reward or consequence, which can be positively or negatively reinforcing.
Reward: the well trained human rises from slumber to feed the cat, who is clearly starving, as indicated by the visible presence of the bottom of the food bowl. The cat reaps the benefits of a satisfied need.
Consequence: the human scolds the cat with a scathing indictment on its perception of timeliness and priority and locks it out of the room, discouraging the behaviour from ever happening again by withholding reward.
4: Motivation happens! Ta-da! The cat will either continue or discontinue the behaviour depending on the motivational impact of the reward and whether or not the cat feels like it was consulted appropriately about the decision-making process3.
The traditional methods seem to make sense. We rely on them in training animals (and employees) to do what they are told and feel good about it. However, cat owners may spot some flaws in the argument above (especially if they’ve ever tried to train a cat4). The discoverer of the “seeking circuit” suggests other elements at play which lead into motivation.
“…in their tireless pursuit of the uncatchable laser dot …”
The man who tickles rats
The neuroscientist Dr Jaak Panksepp dedicated a portion of his life (when he wasn’t busy tickling rats5) to researching emotional feelings in animals as an avenue to understanding human emotions with the ultimate goal of relieving their suffering. Underneath all of the complex analytics our brains perform every day to work out how much collected spare change we owe the barista, there is an ancient mammalian brain telling us to feel things.
Dr Panksepp identified a set of seven primal emotions6 found in many mammals and the brain circuitry from whence they arise. Through experiments enabling an animal to turn a circuit on or off at its own volition, it was discovered that animals will act to experience some emotions such as “seeking” or “care” and will act to stop unpleasant emotions such as “rage”.
So, when my cat experiences a positive emotion, she will act to continue it, and if she experiences a negative emotion (such as when she hears the neighbour’s dog) she will act to discontinue the experience (by hiding in the wardrobe). The emotional experience itself is a motivating factor. The excitement of chasing the laser dot is inherently motivating, as is the fear of the neighbour’s dog.
A Rat enjoying its tickle session; your argument is invalid.
What that means in the workplace
Cats and their endless pursuit of the elusive laser dot aside, emotional motivation is an important factor to bear in mind in the workplace. A good bonus scheme might incentivise some workers toward peak performance, but if they find the tasks involved in their day to day work dull – or worse, rage inducing – I’ll wager that most of your workforce will be putting the majority of their discretionary effort into new job applications.
Lawrence & Nohria7 support the idea of emotional motivation with their four drive theory. They suggest that underlying a workforce’s engagement, satisfaction, commitment to their job and intention to throw down their uniforms and find other work are four human emotional drives: to achieve and acquire, to bond with the organisation or their colleagues, to comprehend, and to defend. It’s suggested that addressing all four needs in balance provides best outcomes for an organisation and its people.
And when you think about it, is it that far of a stretch to think that employees will stick around and do well at work if they’re receiving competitive pay and recognition in a fair environment, mastering interesting, meaningful work with a team they get along with and with a great manager who cares? The tricky part is finding out what your employees enjoy and fear, and what they individually consider to be important.
A Message from our Director of People & Culture
At Accodex, we’re looking to create a working world that keeps people as interested in their work as my cat ogling dust motes from the windowsill on a still sunny morning. We work toward providing a fair and supportive environment for employees and partners to chase their laser dot aspirations, while reducing as much of the dull repetitive work as we can automate. We reach forth to seize opportunities to improve the way work gets done. Because work isn’t any fun anymore when it stops moving.
Director of People & Culture
Written By: Kimberley Harrison
- This is a really bad HR joke, and I’m not nearly as sorry as I should be.
- For more information on Dr Panksepp’s primal emotions, you can view his TEDx talk here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=65e2qScV_K8