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May 16, 2013 | Volume 7 | Number 5
May 16, 2013
Strategies used to reward and recognize employees’ efforts have become more sophisticated over the years. However, only recently have employers begun to move beyond traditional (usually financial) incentives and consider ways to make work truly rewarding. In addition, state-of-the-art social and affective neuroscience—using techniques such as fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging—has illuminated how the brain responds to various types of rewards.
By extension, this research can provide insights into how managers can motivate and reward employees more effectively. Indeed, prominent business leaders are beginning to make references to the brain to clarify motivational techniques (Kleiner, 2011). In turn, novel social, communication and task-oriented approaches to workplace rewards and recognition are now emerging.
Importance of the Social Brain
Connection to a social group is critically important for emotional well-being, and when we feel social distress (what some have called “social pain”), the brain’s response is almost identical to brain activity during physical pain experiences (Eisenberger & Lieberman, 2003). By extension, feeling socially slighted, excluded or rejected at work can be perceived as being as painful as a physical injury. In contrast, positive feedback about one’s social reputation lights up reward pathways in the brain (Izuma, Saito, & Sadato, 2008). Being treated fairly by others also increases activity in the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, two key components of the brain’s reward system (Tabibnia & Lieberman, 2007).
The socially conscious brain is also designed to solve both intellectual and social problems. A related fMRI study asked managers to consider strategic and tactical workplace dilemmas while their brain activity was being monitored. The best strategic thinkers showed more activity in brain regions associated with empathy and emotional intelligence, such as the insula and anterior cingulate cortex (Gilkey et al., 2010). This finding suggests that considering social implications of a decision may lead to more satisfying and potentially rewarding outcomes for employees.
We also know that we are wired to minimize threat and maximize reward in our environment, not only in general, but particularly in social encounters. Perceived or real threats that do occur—such as hearing that one’s work performance is under review or that a proposal was rejected by a supervisor—can induce what some have called an emotional “hijack” (Goleman et al., 2002). Such an experience can make it difficult to get back on task and interfere with interactions that happen minutes or even hours later. Beyond individual hijacks, about two-thirds of individuals describe work as a significant source of stress (American Psychological Association, 2013). Ultimately, work can only be rewarding if stress is managed well; it is deeply troubling that many people experience more stress than fulfillment in the workplace.
Carrots vs. Creativity
Motivation guru Dan Pink has noted, “there’s a mismatch between what science knows and what business does.” To support this assertion, he describes a surprisingly consistent finding across many studies: financial incentives inhibit rather than promote creative problem solving. Indeed, a review of 51 studies by the prestigious London School of Economics and Political Science showed “overwhelming evidence” that financial incentives reduce motivation and pleasure related to completing work tasks (LSEPS, 2011). Research has also clarified that once basic needs are met, additional income does not affect life satisfaction; happiness expert Dr. Ed Diener has found that the most satisfied people are those with the strongest social connections.
A related issue is the “flow state.” Flow refers to a deep and sustained focus on, immersion in and enjoyment of an activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). Entering a flow state is an exercise in complete absorption, where striving for peak performance allows us to block out distractions and even experience altered time perception. The flow state is dependent upon a critical balance of task challenges and skills; an overly challenging task matched with few skills leads to anxiety, whereas an easy task performed by an expert causes boredom. The sweet spot is right in between, and leads to a deeply rewarding experience in the workplace and more generally. In other words, the activity itself becomes its own reward.
Turing back to business, evidence suggests that satisfied employees tend to make their firms more money. A recent study examining Fortune’s “100 Best Companies to Work for in America” found that companies whose employees feel pride in their work and are content with work-family policies (among other related factors) generate higher stock returns than comparable peer companies (Edmans, 2012). Beyond the bottom line, it is also clear that employees who are thriving—that is, who are highly engaged and able to sustain their performance over time—show better commitment, job satisfaction and health than peers (Spreitzer & Porath, 2012).
Strategies for a New Era
While business may remain sluggish in catching up to neuroscience and motivation research, some evidence-based strategies may be worth considering to engage and reward employees. As Dan Pink argues, better satisfaction is associated with three factors: autonomy over one’s time or task, sense of task mastery and sense of purpose (Pink, 2009). These tenets jibe with others’ suggestions that self-directed decision making helps employees thrive (Spreitzer & Porath, 2012). More generally, efforts to help employees shift into a flow state are likely to pay many dividends (including neuroanatomic ones as the brain’s reward circuits engage). Related strategies include defining specific task goals that are challenging yet attainable, assigning tasks that accentuate strengths and aptitudes, seeking input from employees regarding skills they would like to develop and creating optimal physical and interpersonal environments for success.
Other approaches might include a company-wide policy to shift performance feedback from a potentially (or actually) aversive experience to a rewarding and solution-oriented one. As supported by neuroscience findings, feedback should be perceived as fair, include ways to increase the employee’s sense of in-group membership and avoid social comparison with coworkers (Randolph, 2013). Explicit recognition of positive gains is also critical, even if remedial concerns are being addressed. Such efforts reduce the likelihood of a socially painful experience and increase the chances of positive action moving forward.
Striving to enhance interpersonal dynamics in the workplace can also be rewarding on a number of levels. For example, while mentoring subordinates or nurturing client relationships may not seem to be bottom-line drivers, encouraging such relational tactics can lead to increased engagement as well as better margins. Further, simple strategies that encourage employees in close proximity to make eye contact, smile or say hello (such as Ochsner Health System’s “10/5 Way”) have been found to improve client service ratings, probably due to improved social connectedness among employees (Achor, 2012). Even a consistent open-door policy can lead to more direct, honest and rewarding communication between managers and direct reports.
Traditional models of reward and recognition are now being retooled to emphasize social, intrinsic and other non-financial incentives. In the context of broader wellness initiatives, these efforts have significant potential to improve employee well-being and promote a flourishing organizational culture.
Achor, S. (2012). Positive intelligence: Three ways individuals can cultivate their own sense of well-being and set themselves up to succeed. Harvard Business Review, 90, 100-102.
American Psychological Association (2013). Stress in America. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2012/report-summary.aspx
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.
Edmans, A. (2012). The link between job satisfaction and firm value, with implications for corporate social responsibility. Academy of Management Perspectives, 26(4), 1-19.
Eisenberger, N.I., & Lieberman, M.D. (2004). Why rejection hurts: A common neural alarm system for physical and social pain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(7), 294-300. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2004.05.010.
Gilkey, R., Caceda, R., & Kilts, C. (2010). When emotional reasoning trumps IQ. Harvard Business Review, 88, 27.
Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership: Learning to lead with emotional intelligence. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.
Izuma, K., Saito, D.N., & Sadato, N. (2008). Processing of social and monetary rewards in the human striatum. Neuron, 58, 294. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2008.03.020.
Kleiner, A. (2011). The thought leader interview: Meg Wheatley. Strategy+Business, 65. Retrieved from http://www.strategy-business.com.
London School of Economics and Political Science (2011). When performance-related pay backfires. Retrieved from http://www2.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/news/archives/2009/06/performancepay.aspx.
Pink, D.H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Randolph, J.J. (2013). Promoting psychosocial and cognitive wellness in the workplace: The emerging neuroscience of leadership development. In J.J. Randolph (Ed.), Positive neuropsychology: Evidence-based perspectives on promoting cognitive health (pp. 103-119). New York, NY: Springer Science+Business Media, LLC.
Spreitzer, G., & Porath, C. (2012). Creating sustainable performance. Harvard Business Review, 90(1/2), 93-99.
Tabibnia, G., & Lieberman, M.D. (2007). Fairness and cooperation are rewarding: Evidence from social cognitive neuroscience. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1118, 90-101. doi: 10.1196/annals.1412.001.
John Randolph, PhD, ABPP, is an executive coach/consultant and board-certified clinical neuropsychologist in private practice in Lebanon, NH. He is also the editor of Positive neuropsychology: Evidence-based perspectives on promoting cognitive health (2013, Springer Science+Business Media, LLC). Information about his coaching and consulting services can be found at www.jrandolphconsulting.com and he can be reached by email at email@example.com.
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