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Threat vs Reward

Is it a carrot?  Is it a stick?

At the forefront of every good organisation’s thinking is how to maximise the value of its (usually) most costly asset: its people.

One of the most effective ways of maximising our people’s potential is to create an environment which is conducive to optimal performance. Thankfully for us neuroscience sheds a significant amount of light on this issue. Which is what we’ll explore now.

But first, a little neuroscience 101.  The primary role of our brain is to help us navigate our environment; this distinguishes us from plants, for whom the only way is up.

On a very basic level our brain does this by avoiding threats and seeking rewards. While this instinctive orientation is brilliant for finding food and avoiding becoming it, it does generate problems for us in 21st century life.

Firstly, we have an incredibly strong natural response to threat that is instant and long-lasting.

When we were being chased by tigers this was brilliant, in flight or fight mode our brain’s responses cause a rise in heart rate and blood pressure, our pupils dilate to take in as much light as possible, which helps to trigger brain cortisol production (stress hormone) and decrease dopamine (pleasure hormone).  Rest assured you will not be distracted by tempting pleasures whilst running for your life!

Cortisol makes us see things in black or white, yes or no and leads us to over-assess the level of threat in front of us.  From an evolutionary viewpoint, those ancestors that thought “better safe than sorry” presumably lasted a little bit longer.

However, all of this is rather unhelpful as a response to a strongly-worded email from your boss.  Herein lies the issue: our brains respond to social threat in much the same way as they respond to physical threats.

As a result of this perceived threat (even though it’s just an email), the blood vessels to our muscles dilate in preparation for action and blood flows away from our Prefrontal Cortex – the part of our brain which manages planning, complex cognitive behaviour, decision-making and our emotions.  Otherwise known as the rational part of our brain.

If we threaten someone or put them in a threatening work environment (even by just writing an email they respond negatively to), we are literally reducing their capacity to think rationally.  So when you’re upset with someone for being behind on a deadline or being unhelpful in some way, the very email you might send to get them to focus and do better, will probably only make things worse.

Blood moves to this area of the brain when under threat...

Neurologically speaking this should be great news, because surely there is something we can do about it?  We know that our brains are mouldable like plastic, so whenever we find out something about our brains that is not ideal, we can consider ways to respond and encourage our brains to react differently.

Is reward the solution? The effects of reward, although less strong, do put us in a better state of mind for operating in the modern working world.  Reward stimulates parts of the brain that are responsible for optimism, concentration, collaboration and innovation.

However, it is surprising to some that the conventional business understanding of reward i.e. money, is perhaps not as significant for creating a reward state of mind as was once thought.

Research has shown when we are given a choice between money and social connection we are more motivated by social rewards than by monetary ones.  The research suggests this is because our brains experience physical pleasure during socially rewarding experiences.

For instance, having people collaborate with us, perceiving ourselves to have a good reputation, receiving recognition or giving help to someone all trigger a pleasurable reward response.

So by extension, creating an environment which offers rewards and minimises threat does not necessarily mean financial incentivising.  What the research suggests is that we need to create an environment where we each build genuine relationships with one another.

What could you do with this information?  How might you contribute in your office and your team to a working environment where strong relationship-building is the expectation?