The Neurochemistry of Motivation
By Judith E. Glaser
Employee Question: I work better in environments when my superiors are supportive and give praise for a job well done, and are also understanding when things go wrong. I wonder, is there any evidence that bosses get better work out of their employees when they encourage them rather than ignoring them or instilling fear?
Through advances in neuroscience, we are now able to see inside of the brains and minds of people while they are experiencing different emotions. What astounds scientists and practitioners alike is the dramatically different ‘brain landscape’ for people who are in fear states, compared to those who are in states of joy and happiness.
What this surprising difference in our brain’s activity is showing us is so profound that it is changing the very foundation for how leaders lead.
Once a person has been triggered by fear – let’s say from an angry boss, a yelling, or merely a passive-aggressive or blaming boss who is embarrassing that person in front of colleagues – a cascade of neurochemicals starts in the lower brain – and literally spews out into the rest of the brain – like someone was spray painting their brain! This cortisol bath sends messages to the other parts of the brain – there are actually 5 brains working in concert – and tells them to move into hyper-gear to protect the person from harm.
This triggered reaction is not momentary – it is sustained over a half-life of 13 hours or a full life of 26 hours. If the leader continues to irritate, embarrass or outrage the employee during the next period of time, the cortisol and associated chemistry continues its cascade and the person is now not just in a moment of fear but in a prolonged state of fear.
Parts of the brain needed for thinking, empathy, and getting along with others are now closing down and the person is being driven into strategies for self-protection. This includes talking with people who can console them, or help them think through, talk through and work through feeling so bad. This person needs to find solace with others to elevate their fear and pain – and so begins their journey to find comfort from others who care.
How productive do you think this person is now?
Most leaders don’t realize that punishment and embarrassment to get people to perform is not only an outdated strategy for employee motivation – it is a harmful strategy – with both short-term and long-term unexpected consequences.
Inspired leaders would be further inspired if they understand the neurochemistry of motivation – how praise and support can unlock the neurochemical patterns that also cascade chemistry throughout the brain. This powerful and almost drug-like dopamine state that comes with appropriate, honest and well-deserved (sincere) praise will set into place a pattern of intrinsic motivation that will open up new pathways for the employee to access new skills and talents.
How we enable our brains to have neuroplasticity – to help us change and grow – is a science that all business people need to learn to understand and practice. There is a neurochemistry behind praise that actually triggers neurotransmitters that release specific chemicals that impact ‘confidence’ and ‘social composure’.
Once these chemicals are released, they give a person’s brain the ability to sustain working on projects even under stress – which means that a person essentially will have greater intention and attention to staying on a project longer to get a result – rather than bailing out midstream and only achieving a fraction of what they could otherwise accomplish.
Rather than ‘replacing employees who aren’t’ cutting it’ or punishing them for not achieving, leaders can now learn practices that release or trigger skill-building new neurochemicals – propelling good employees to become great employees!
Judith E. Glaser is the CEO of Benchmark Communications, Inc. and the Chairman of The Creating WE Institute. She is an Organizational Anthropologist, consultant to Fortune 500 companies and author of the best selling book, Conversational Intelligence (Bibliomotion, 2013).