Use Novelty to Reignite Drive

We all have a 'seeking' emotional system that is responsible for our motivation, and it is ignited by novelty.

Businessman chasing a dangling carrot.
Credit: Thinkstock

Think of a time when you got to pursue something new, perhaps a new assignment to turn a team around or a new job to revamp your company's software. Did you feel on top of the world? If you're like most people, you felt a boost of enthusiasm. But what about a few months or years later? Even if you were meeting your goals, did you feel as though you were going through the motions, putting another square peg into another square hole? I bet you did, because it's our human nature.           

We all get a thrill out of pursuing or seeking a new goal, but once we've achieved it or been immersed in the quest for a while, it doesn't seem so attractive. As a leader, how important is it to help your team experience the excitement of doing something new?

The Research

According to Jaak Panksepp, an American psychologist and neuroscientist who has conducted extensive research on emotional systems, the very act of seeking or pursuing a new goal motivates and excites us much more powerfully than achieving it. We all share a "seeking" emotional system, which arouses our emotions and governs our motivation. Novelty ignites it.

In laboratory tests, animals will make self-stimulating their seeking emotional system an overriding priority. Jaak Panksepp and other researchers working with him have set up experiments where laboratory animals with electrodes implanted in their brains can self-stimulate their seeking emotional system by pressing a button that applies electric jolts to the brain region responsible for this emotion. When the animals can choose between stimulating their seeking emotional system or eating to stay alive, they will choose the former. Although we humans may not starve ourselves for the thrill of the chase, the chase still figures prominently in our behavior.

Use Novelty to Invigorate

If you happen to work in a high-tech company, you may encounter novelty every day in this age of innovation. Other industries should be so lucky. Take a customer service desk job at a government agency, for instance. Imagine how long it would take for you to get bored stiff answering the same questions every day. How do you inject novelty and freshness into a team engaged in work that changes at the speed of a glacier?

You can keep people feeling enthusiastic by periodically shifting their responsibilities. The change of scenery and routine will spark more energy. Yes, each must travel the learning curve and get up to speed in a new arena, but learning itself fulfills the appetite for seeking novelty, and the extra enthusiasm sparked by doing something new should more than make up for any loss of productivity.

You might also engage your people in process improvement initiatives, which provide great opportunities for them to get involved in new and different work. The chance to do something new and interesting that will streamline a cumbersome process can spark their motivation.

Organize Work in Creative Cycles

You can also maintain a high level of enthusiasm by organizing work in creative cycles. This is one reason why teams that develop software generally have higher enthusiasm than those that support software. Teams that develop software progress through certain creative phases, going from envisioning the application they need to create, writing the code, testing the result, and then installing it. Then they get to start a new project. Their work is bursting with novelty. If you lead teams engaged in software development and support, incorporate some of the support work into the creative cycles of the projects. That way, more people get the thrill of working in patterns that boost the feeling of freshness and novelty.

Now this is the cool part: When a stimulus arouses our seeking system, it activates our frontal neocortex, prompting us to work out innovative strategies and solutions. A team that embarks on an exciting new journey not only feels strongly motivated to succeed but also comes up with more creative solutions.

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