Motivation – A quick guide to Needs, Goals, Impulses & Responses

Motivation is described in various articles, but it is worth touching on various “types” relate to NEURO-M concepts specifically. As a recap, there is one motivational mechanism, three types of motivation and two response systems.

The Motivational Mechanism

The neuroscience of motivation estimates rewards or loss, puts a value on competing options and then moderates impulses. Typically, effort can only be allocated to one major thing at a time, so the continual comparison of attention, action options and loss/reward influences how much effort is given to a specific behaviour. The winner of the reward/risk/effort sum alternatives at any moment is the one acted upon.

There are some biases in this system. Immediacy over delayed gratification, intrinsic over extrinsic (but both concepts are often misunderstood), emotion over rationality, big rewards for big effort over small rewards for small effort (yes, people prefer to be challenged!), and loss over gain (by about 2:1), the normalisation effect, and unexpected rewards being valued (or losses being negatively valued) above objectively identical but expected ones (reward prediction error). Being aware of these biases helps prioritise action choices – for example, doing what’s important before it becomes urgent, evaluating risk accurately, using appreciation as a reward and motivation and so on.


Needs are the things that we are driven toward in the programming of our DNA. In the workplace they have been identified as safety, connection, empowerment, identity and task reward (underpinned by safety). Along with basic biological needs they drive emotions and actions at a mostly subconscious level. Where they are reasonably well satisfied, expect behaviours and performances to remain mostly as they are. Where there are gaps that are significant to an individual, that person will be drawn to changing their actions or environments in order to find congruence between the need and its satisfaction. This change might be desirable – or it might not.

Employee engagement arises from the ability of employees to act to meet those needs in the ways and to the extents they require in ways that are desirable to the employee, employer and culture. In this way, the fundamentals of employee engagement and high performance can be understood -and managed – in fairly pretty simple ways.

Goals are human constructions, either individually or socially. For example, the goal of earning lots of money is linked to the socially-constructed concept that the more money one has, the happier, more powerful and more popular one will be. A goal may also be externally imposed, such as a task instruction.

To have meaning and sustainability, goals need to be underpinned by basic need fulfilment. For example, a career pathway is commonly characterised by increasing responsibility, authority and tangible reward. The increase in responsibility and authority can be linked directly to the basic needs of empowerment (e.g., competence and autonomy) and identity (e.g., self-esteem, social place, purpose). The increases in tangible rewards also support preferred identity (through symbols of status) and the perception of increased pleasure (through enjoying consumer goods and experiences).

However, a goal that is not linked to protection or enhancement of need fulfilment is unlikely to motivate. For example, a manager may wish she could type at 100 wpm accurately to help speed up writing reports and memos, but if being a faster, more accurate typist is not a part of her identity and other things are, she is unlikely to put in the time and effort practising fast, accurate typing for its own sake. Similarly, through a deficit in connection fulfilment, it is more likely that a single person will sacrifice the pleasure of eating sugary and fatty foods and watching TV to lose weight than a happily married person will.

In the workplace, a task instruction that has little connection with basic need fulfilment can only, at best, initiate a basic satisficing response to remove the risk of negative consequences associated with non-compliance. That so little is understood of this connection in employment choices, role design, delegation and feedback is at the heart of passive employee disengagement and mediocre performance.

Impulses are things that are perceived to require small effort for immediate reward. For example, scratching an itch, snacking on sweet food, taking drugs, gossiping or checking social media. Those who have a stronger self-regulation network are less likely to be susceptible to impulses and are more likely to be fulfilled (as against momentarily satisfied), successful, healthy and respected. People who experience well-being and fulfilment generally, enjoy safe and supportive relationships, surround themselves with others with positive outlooks and healthy habits, and are at peace with themselves and the world are also less likely to experience dopamine deficits that can trigger impulses.

Associations have also been made between IQ and impulse control, but intellect alone is not a reliable predictor of it. Rather, EQ (emotional intelligence), through self-awareness and the direct link of self-regulation (albeit with a slightly different meaning) is more likely to be a reliable support for impulse control. Obviously, impulse control is closely linked to maintaining the focused effort, often with more losses than gains along the way, that are essential for resilience.


Motivation is a call to action, focusing, preparing and energising the brain and body. Where an action, or a resistance to acting, is linked to avoiding loss or pain, an avoidance schema is adopted. Because of the existence of a threat, avoidance motivators are rated highly but often involve the amygdalae and an increase in emotional reactivity (aggressive or defensive) and physical symptoms along with an effective decrease in IQ and behavioural management. Conversely, where an action is perceived to be linked to gain, the neurochemical process sees increases in positive energy, effort, collaboration and self-management, with serotonin and acetylcholine enhancing cognitive capacity and learning, oxytocin building trusting relationships, and anticipatory dopamine lifting energy and effort in a controlled, rather than reactionary, way.

In a NEURO-M context, this sees us understanding motivation as aimed at individuals achieving feelings of well-being and safety in pursuing their basic needs in ways that satisfy the individual, the team and the organisation. More than that, it sees actions and effort being directed toward actions that meet the goals of individuals and organisations more effectively than impulses and non-preferred activities and behaviours.

For example, if you want someone to spend more time talking to customers than friends, that activity needs to be the more (anticipatory) rewarding option. Whether they do that in an engaged or disengaged way will be influenced by whether they are more influenced in the moment by an avoidance or approach schema. Whether they do that unsupervised depends on whether they feel a connection between their goals, basic needs and preferred action choices. Whether they do that despite it not being their preferred in-the-moment option depends on whether the goals they attach to it are more influential than their impulses to do other, more immediately-rewarding things.

Whether people work well together depends on the rewards or penalties they associate with working in a team and, more specifically, with those people. Whether people respond positively to feedback depends on whether the feedback is seen as enhancing or detracting from goal-orientation or basic need satisfaction – quite independently of whether it is “good” or “bad” news. And so it goes.

Graphic: Environment, capacity and context (Internal and external influence) From here

Understanding the basic concept that motivation evolved to be primarily intuitive way of evaluating, prioritising, initiating and sustaining internal-rewards-based action choices and effort is an essential NEURO-M principle that every manager should understand about themselves and their team. This area is covered in greater depth in our Neuromanagement training modules.