Motivation is a difficult subject to nail down for most managers, especially for scientific research managers. It’s difficult for multiple reasons. Some being fear, money, food, security, and the list can go on. The way we can reconcile this is to start from the beginning. I’m actually talking about the beginning of life; biological evolution.

There are several research studies that look at the biological evolution of the brain and its processes. Many of the findings agree on some of the fundamental developmental processes of what it can affect or what it’s affected by. Understanding the biological evolution of the human brain can be leveraged to effectively manage your people.

There are several management strategies that help to motivate people, like discussing the merit increases, using the passion position, or using stick/ carrot tactics. However you might see these approaches being applied to your current lab, its difficult to understand the logic behind them. These strategies usually can become frustrating because they may not necessarily apply to all situations. Also, it can be difficult to know when to apply them.

So, what I like to do is give people a set of tools or thesis in order to help them decide the best approach to motivating their people to accomplish their goals. In order to do this, you need to understand the fundamentals about the brain. We essentially have three brains that we have to appeal to, and the order in which we appeal to those brains matters significantly. Here’s a breakdown of what you should understand:

  1. Limbic System (Brain Stem)
    1. Reptile brain
    2. Flight/ Fight, Hunger, Sex
  2. Limbic System (Precambrian Cortex)
    1. Primate brain
    2. Emotions, Social,
  3. Neocortex (Frontal Lobe)
    1. Human brain
    2. Conscious, Logic, Language


Each of these parts of the brain needs to be communicated to in the proper sequence. So when you communicate your ideas or lessons, you need to always understand which brain you’re speaking to.

  1. Appeal to the security of the person. Let them know how this will affect them. Approach them in a non-threatening manner. In order to this, do the following:
    1. smile
    2. say please, thank you.
    3. ask (this create autonomy – see other motivations “Drive”)
  2. Appeal to their emotions. This is their non-speaking brain and is driven by emotions. Some may call it passion, or gut feelings. In order to do this, do the following:
    1. laugh, smile, joke
    2. use hands, gesticulate.
    3. touch (a pat on the back, a hand-shake)
  3. Appeal to their logic and rationale. This is never the difficult part for knowledge seekers or scientist. So I won’t go into this, but if you don’t know, you can follow these suggestions:
    1. Use statistics and data.
    2. Democracy (vote).
    3. Management/ Strategize. Ask them questions (why?!).(Consistency creates more stability and reinforces 1st brain motives of security and reassurance).

The problem that I see most people do, is they try to use data and stats to communicate first before they have the buy-in from the other parts of the brain. This doesn’t work! If they don’t understand the complexity of your logic, they shut it out and are bored. To assume that they understand your work, is a mistake that can cost you in time and in money. Communicate from the first brain. Using basic communication styles will make sense to you and them.

  1. I want you to be happy.
  2. I believe that we all have the right to happiness.
  3. We can all be happy by taking the following actions…

Let your people know that you don’t have all of the answers, but with their help, together you’ll discover the answers. This communicates truth of the uncertainty but the security of the togetherness and community. They’ll have more faith in you to help them discover the answers to their own motives. Through the evolution of biology you can understand the biology of motivation.