3 Ways to Boost Your Clients' Motivation using Neuroscience | by Delaney Tosh

Motivated Leader wearing red boxing gloves

Motivation is the emotional capacity, or the desire, to create, produce or get something done—regardless of how pleasant the experience.

This definition makes it seem that motivation is driven by the circumstances in our life and our attitude. Yet if we take a closer look at neuroscience research, we see that it's the neurotransmitters in our brains that determine motivation. These neurotransmitters send chemical messages to our brain and body that directly impact our behaviours, sleep, learning, memory, mood and motivation.

Ramon David, MSc, is the founder of BrainFirst® Training Institute and a researcher of the neuroscience of motivation—and how to apply it in coaching. According to Ramon, neuroscientists have established that dopamine is a critical neurotransmitter involved in motivation. Dopamine sends signals between neurons and plays a role in the brain's reward system, telling us to take action, to achieve something good. He says, "Dopamine is a key substrate of intrinsic motivation. Dopamine drives curiosity, interest and the desire for information, as well as the search for higher meaning." 1

The link between motivation and dopamine

Motivation impacts our neurotransmitters. When you feel intrinsically motivated, you increase your sense of autonomy and identity. This helps increase dopamine activity in the brain, which in turn increases your sense of reward. 2

For better performance, aim for intrinsic motivation

A key factor that plays a significant role in our motivation is whether we're intrinsically or extrinsically motivated.

  • Intrinsic motivation applies to tasks that you're genuinely interested in and value as relevant to your sense of identity. This is an internal process.
  • Extrinsic motivation is any external factor that might be driving you to do something, such as money, societal pressure, external expectations or reward systems.

Extrinsic motivation can increase productivity in mundane, repetitive tasks that don't require much cognitive load. However, it can reduce motivation and performance in more cognitive and creative tasks.

On the other hand, intrinsic motivation is more effective for tasks requiring thought, planning, challenge and learning. When we tap into our internal/neural reward system, we perform better and are more satisfied.

The takeaway? Leaders will benefit from bringing awareness to how well their values, goals and perspectives align with their work, projects and tasks.

3 Key Ways to Increase Intrinsic Motivation

Based on what we now know from applied neuroscience, leaders can intrinsically motivate themselves or their teams—and coaches can help their clients increase their sense of intrinsic motivation—by exploring these three tactics:

1) Increase a sense of autonomy

Explore any perspectives where they see their work, project or task as being forced upon them. Then, help them to choose a more motivating perspective. Ask:

  • What do they have control over?
  • How could they approach the work in their own way?
  • What would make them feel that they are doing this for themselves?

2) Include Mastery Goals that stimulate their sense of being positively challenged

Stimulate their sense of intrinsic motivation by asking:

  • What interests them?
  • What skills or knowledge could they improve upon or attain?
  • How do they wish to grow in their work and capabilities?
  • What would make the task at hand feel like less of a chore and more of a positive challenge or chance to explore and accomplish something new?

3) Bring meaning into their work

Ask questions that connect leaders to a deeper personal purpose:

  • What values come into play here? For example, how does their work or task align with their core values? What values could they draw on to help feel more aligned with their work or with a team or project? What values-based goals could they set?
  • Also, what makes their work feel purposeful? What is important in it? What might the work result in? Whom might it help in a broader societal sense?
  • What makes their work or a project feel fulfilling? How is it a part of their bigger vision?
  • What will enhance their sense of connection—to the team, to a higher purpose, to the people they serve?


Applied neuroscience offers practical advice you can easily put into action that will enhance cognitive function and ultimately increase your sense of intrinsic motivation.

So take time to reflect on the three key factors of intrinsic motivation discussed above. These are powerful, well-researched tools that will help you boost motivation for yourself, your clients or the teams you lead.

References & Further Learning:

  1. From Ramon David's BrainFirst® Podcast Series: Optimize Your Brain for More Motivation and Productivity with Dr. Brynn Winegard, Ph.D. (Podcast Episode #53)
  2. Dorsolateral prefrontal cortex drives mesolimbic dopaminergic regions to initiate motivated behaviour. The Journal of Neuroscience: The Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 31(28), 10340-6. Ballard I.C., Murty V.P., Carter R.M., et al. (2011).

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Contributing Author:

Delaney Tosh, CPCC, PCC, coaches women who want to radiate with confidence and thrive as leaders. She helps her clients navigate the hurdles unique to women in leadership and also delivers the Resilience at Work® Toolkit and Resilience at Work® Leader Scale, helping leaders and teams create optimal performance through resilience. She is co-creator of the Phoenix-Hearted Woman retreats and webinars, designed to help women build resilience and strengthen their foundation for being heard and making a difference in the world. Connect with Delaney at SquarePeg Leadership or on LinkedIn.

Learn more about Delaney & see all their articles here >>

Image of Highly Motivated Leader Wearing Red Boxing Gloves by aslysun via Shutterstock

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