Fighting Employee Burnout by Satisfying the Seeking Systems

Most of us have experienced burnout, whether personally or having witnessed it among coworkers or subordinates. As a manager, one of the biggest challenges can often be keeping employees motivated.burnoutA lack of motivation can sometimes seem like a problem intrinsic to a specific employee or group of employees; however, there may be environmental factors that trigger biological forces we are all susceptible to.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Dan Cable writes, “it’s crucial to understand that as humans we want to feel motivated and to find meaning in the things that we do. It’s part of our biology. In fact, there’s a part of our brains called the seeking system that creates the natural impulses to learn new skills and take on challenging but meaningful tasks.”

Cable says there are “three small but consequential nudges that trigger employees’ seeking systems.”


Cable tells us that we humans want to show others what makes us special and want to be valued for those features. Our unique contributions are important to us and, therefore, managers should take special steps to ensure we are being recognized for the unique skills and perspectives we bring to bear, Cable says. Make an effort to focus on what makes your employees uniquely valuable to the department and the organization.


Another way to help stimulate the seeking system is to allow people safe spaces to experiment. Cable writes that experimental safe zones, “create intrinsic motivations, which are much more powerful than extrinsic motivations because they unleash creativity.” When people feel internally motivated (intrinsic) they are more committed to outcomes and success. That spurs commitment and creativity.


Most employees want to feel like they are working for something more than just collecting a paycheck. That can mean a cause or greater good outside the organization (saving a life, helping the environment, educating others, etc.). It can also be internal to the organization, such as sharing unique knowledge or contributing to a solution that helps coworkers or the company.

Lack of motivation in employees doesn’t necessarily mean they are lazy or don’t want to work. In fact, it may mean quite the opposite—that they are craving meaningful opportunities to learn and succeed that they aren’t getting. It’s up to managers to identify these situations and do what they can to remedy them.