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The Science of Empowerment

Pleasure Response Solving problems with innovative solutions is fun, exciting and rewarding. Yet, being told what to do is generally boring and not very motivating, but why is this? Why exactly do some ways of working seem enjoyable and satisfying while others the total opposite? Well, the explanation involves chemistry and electricity.

I had coffee today with Dr Michael Aucoin, author of Right Brain Project Management, that I have discussed previously. He has been in Banff working on his new book and we chatted about empowered teams and productivity.

He explained that simply presenting work as questions rather than statements can engage mental models that make work more engaging, rewarding and in turn productive. More and more research on the brain is showing that we are hard-wired to reward ourselves for solving problems. Thinking about this, it makes sense, evolution rewards problem solvers and so an appropriate response is to make it feel good so that we continue doing it.

When we solve a problem and get that “ah-ha” moment, pleasure circuits in the brain light-up and endorphins are released that give us the buzz of solving the problem.  We also generate ownership for the solution and motivation to make it work, even if we encounter obstacles during the implementation. Contrast this level of enthusiasm with the prospect of having to do mandatory administration tasks or form filling. It is no surprise people enjoy working on empowered teams more than being directed exactly what to do, and some teams are orders of magnitude more productive than others.

So, as a project manager looking to increase productivity and motivation, is it simply a case of posing all work as questions and problems to be solved?  Obviously not, asking “Can anyone get our time recording entered?”, “Or, how can we write up these meeting minutes?” is likely to elicit the deserved response of “Yes, you need to stop wasting our time with dumb questions and do it!

However, most projects could greatly benefit from engaging people’s problem solving skills and the motivation from solution-finding. Rather than over analyse difficult problems and prematurely decompose complexity into simple tasks, instead invite the team to find solutions. Make use of people’s problem solving skills and increased motivation it brings to create a more rewarding environment.

Is this manipulation, a mind trick to get people to work harder? I don’t  think so, instead a more insightful and respectful way of engaging a team. After all “We manage property and lead people. If we try to manage people they will feel like property”. Research on the brain is helping us understand what we instinctively feel. I am looking forward to Mike’s next book and learning more about working smarter.