Caught In The Act!… of doing something right: A neurobiological approach to high performance management – by Michael McIntosh

There is no shortage or theories on how to manage and lead – every day we witness new insights from the famous, talented or deceased. But how might we enact good management on a daily, hands-on basis – and, just as importantly, why? It turns out there is genuine science to this question, and if we understand and apply some basic neurobiological principles, the gap between mediocre and high performance becomes bridgeable quite quickly. Here’s why and how:

Adrenaline

neurobiology of high performance management - adrenaline

A good place to start is with three naturally occurring chemicals that our bodies produce instantly and one that takes a few moments more to generate but lasts a LOT longer. The first two are pretty good – epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline) work together to prepare and mobilise the body for action. Increasing blood flow, attention and concentration, they help to sharpen the mind, improving task focus while blocking out, at least to some extent, distractions such as sounds, pain, fatigue and so on. In practise, they allow me to achieve a state of highly productive flow in my work while not hearing a single track on the CD that’s playing in the background. They also give me the energy to finish a cycling or kayaking trip without much discomfort, whereas a short while later, when their effects subside, my body complains in the most vociferous terms about the harsh punishment it has just endured.

Dopamine

neurobiology of high performance management - dopamine

In a professional context these two hormones are important for motivating us to tackle challenging tasks, providing the energy and focus to perform them to a high standard. Ideally, they are accompanied by dopamine, the chemical that makes us feel good by triggering our internal rewards systems, giving us a natural high, increasing positive feelings, optimism, camaraderie and sociability while reducing fear sensitivity and (some) inhibitions. Dopamine is a key ingredient in fostering our social drives and behaviours.

If you have ever enjoyed the feeling of having achieved something difficult, whether related to a sporting or work achievement, that’s dopamine doing its thing – and it can be even better if you were a part of a close-knit team at the time. Our intrinsic desire for those addictive dopamine pleasure dumps means that, unless fear of failure or other potential physical or psychological risks is stronger, most people continually seek new challenges and greater achievements, finding, despite the difficulties involved, them to be more stimulating than the uninspiring predictability of repeating the things we’ve done many times before. Together, the focus and energy provided by epinephrine and norepinephrine allow us to perform at a higher level, and if we take a positive view to those challenges dopamine is likely to be present throughout as well – it’s a naturally occurring behaviour-shaping system that lives within all of us.

Cortisol

neurobiology of high performance management - cortisol

To mess up this massively enjoyable party the fourth guest is cortisol – commonly known as the stress hormone. Cortisol responds to danger, just as epinephrine and norepinephrine do, but one of its primary roles is to protect and repair us. Taking a little longer to take effect, it helps us to be more alert to potential sources of danger, reducing our optimism, appetite for risk and sociability. Amongst other things, cortisol also prepares parts of the circulatory system for repair after the physical exertion that used to be an appropriate response to most causes of fear and danger. In a modern context, the chronic exposure to cortisol that results from sustained high levels of mental stress has been shown to be very damaging to physical and mental health, increasing illness in both frequency and severity, reducing quality and length of life. And whereas dopamine often lasts around 2 to 4 hours, cortisol can last up to 24 hours – or even longer when prolonged dwelling on negativity extends its influence.

Brain chemistry and fairness

Research shows that, potentially due to the power and longevity of the danger-sensitive cortisol in comparison to the pleasure-rewarding but shorter-lived effects of dopamine, employees need to feel they receive more positive than negative feedback. To put a number on the ideal proportion, it seems that around 5 positive things (ie compliments, good news, encouragement, positive social interactions) for every piece of negative feedback is likely to create a balance where people feel appreciated and fairly treated.

Management Practice

How does this inform management practice? The first thing is to understand that meaningful challenges provide motivation, energy and connection. This means that if managers want their teams to do “more” or “better”, they had better feel challenged – preferably by something that connects with their own values and interests, furthers their own development and success and they see as worthwhile socially. As noted earlier, raising the bar on challenges also raises the bar on motivation and intrinsic reward – on the basis that psychological and physical safety exists and employees feel empowered, competent, supported and sincerely appreciated for taking on that challenge and achieving those new goals. This is contrary to the view of some managers who hesitate to ask for “more” for fear that team members will be displeased, or whose demands for “more” are met with active or passive resistance. But in most cases this lack of employee task engagement is an artificial construct – most people want to do great things and feel great about what they achieve in a field that is of interest to them while feeling they are making a contribution to something worthwhile – it’s why most people choose their jobs, careers and hobbies. It’s also why every year a little over 1/3 of all Australians perform volunteer work for no financial reward. (If those intrinsic connections appear to be absent from an employee’s normal habits, it may be useful to view the employee within the workplace systemic context, rather than simplistically on his or her own.)

It also suggests that managers need to be aware of how their own natural danger-aversion instincts are holding them,and their teams back, as evolution taught them to: A million years ago those who recognised danger and reacted fastest survived, and so in an environment where we were just another item on the menu our ancestors evolved to be sensitive to danger as their highest priority – a natural behavioural trait that remains today, often manifesting itself as fear or anxiety (fear of the future) despite the absence of such predatory threats. As a part of this sensitivity, we are very good at ignoring the normal, instead spotting the exceptional, with dangerous exceptions prioritised over pleasurable ones.

In a work context, this means that conscientious managers are alert to problems, mistakes, conflict and anything else “bad” (or their potential), and react according to their own perceptions, biases and habits around dealing with that kind of threat. This is nothing for those in supervisory roles to be ashamed of, it’s simply a lifetime of learning and a few million years of evolutionary instinct in practice – nothing could be more natural. It’s not necessarily “wrong” either – a manager who is not alert to, or able to react to, threats is likely to be an incapable one.

Most managers, when not overly burdened with stressful concerns, also notice exceptionally good things, reacting with praise and sincere appreciation. But with the stronger influence of cortisol arising from the negatives, the overall impact is to create an environment where positives feel outnumbered and outweighed by negatives, commonly leaving employees feeling stressed about their work, unappreciated and, as a part of a prolonged pattern, disengaged.

The fix, however, is amazingly simple. As a for-instance, let’s assume that an employee has performed six tasks on a particular day. One of them was executed very well, one unacceptably poor and the other four of them unremarkably, ignore-ably, invisibly average. On the assumption that the four average performances were to a standard of proficiency that was perfectly acceptable, then surely the employee should not only be recognised for the single exceptional performance but, albeit to a lesser extent, all four of the “average” outcomes as well. If we now add in the single poor performance, as long as the manager ensures that all six pieces of feedback are honest, sincere and consistent, and that the five good achievements aren’t dismissed in time or appreciation on the way to an intense focus on only the poor outcome, an ideal feedback ratio is automatically achieved.

Example

This fairly common type of conversation:

  • “That was a really good job you did with the apples but the bananas ended up bruised and damaged – the customer’s not happy. What happened?” (Likely to be met with a defensive, blame-shedding “not-my-fault” or situational victim response.)

Might easily become this more collaborative, but rarer, conversation:

  • “How was your day? I heard about how you solved the apple problem – how did you manage that?” (Allow employee to share the story of success – the manager might even learn something about the problem-solving capability of the employee and/or there may be lessons for continual process improvement)
  • “I also see you managed the oranges, tomatoes, potatoes and pineapples to plan – were there any challenges?” (Allow employee to be and feel heard and appreciated again.)
  • “And I heard from the customer that there was a difficulty with the bananas – what was your take on that? (Allow employee to lead discussion on the problem and suggest own improvements, with manager acting as a collaborative supporter for the employee’s efforts to correct his or her own performance without avoiding the problem or lowering expectations.)

Bonuses

With this “fairer” feedback practice as a normal, everyday management habit, employees are more likely perform most tasks well, raising the bar on “average” due to the “addiction” to the dopamine motivations and reward in positive feedback that validate feelings of accomplishment. Employees are also more likely to volunteer problems rather than wait to have them brought up, feeling that it is safe to do so in the prevalent “fair” environment. In fostering this behaviour, it is apparent that the good feelings (dopamine) from the trusting and positive conversation and relationship (learned reward from this management practice) are preferable to the stress (cortisol) of attempting to hide, minimise, blame or avoid (learned coping mechanism from other life experiences). Through repeated application as a result of management habit, these universal, powerful, chemically-fueled neurobiological rewards and penalties teach either problem-avoidance or challenge-seeking as default behaviour for employees, with a good chance that, if widely and consistently practiced, they will also shape the dominant organisational culture.

As an extra bonus, there is another dimension to this study of chemical cocktails – the effect on the manager. It turns out the very same chemicals act upon the feedback giver as the receiver – meaning that managers who look for good news and sincerely compliment and support others more often are also more likely to be more motivated, more engaged, more responsible and more satisfied with their work and professional relationships. And with employees who are more proactive about fearlessly identifying and solving problems, there is every chance the actual number of problems managers have to deal with will reduce over time – turning perceptions into aspirational behaviours into a new normality.

So it seems that the manager who catches people in the act of doing something right is also doing the same for themselves, with the same powerfully positive benefits. And that’s not just my opinion – it’s our neurobiology.

©Michael McIntosh April 2016

Notes:

  • The accuracy of some of the research behind an “ideal” ratio of praise to criticism of 5.6:1 by Heaphy and Losada has been questioned, but nonetheless there is common agreement that, notwithstanding differences between individuals, sincere, positive good news and praise serves as an effective incentive for, and reinforcement of, desirable behaviours. In order to foster positive intentions, behaviours and outcomes over a sustained period of time, a ratio that strongly favours positive feedback over negative is most likely to be effective.
  • In the short-term, the threat of loss is generally more effective than the promise of reward, but people, over time, act in more permanent ways (eg resignation, sabotage, enlisting trade or labour union support) to minimise threats, including those on self-esteem through a lack of appreciation. In any case, what does it say about a supervisory manager if the main (disciplinary or otherwise) tool used is to threaten employees with a loss of some kind? Similarly, what does it say about a supervisory manager if there is an aversion to showing regular, honest and sincere appreciation?
  • Underlying the effectiveness of this type of approach are themes like integrity, intention and connection. Through non-verbal clues and behavioural consistency, employees are likely to, either immediately or over time, “see through” disingenuous comments and insincere behaviours, resulting in a severe breach in trust and substantial amounts of disengagement, certainly with the supervisor involved and potentially with the organisation on a larger scale. However, where a supervisory manager’s intention is to help an employee to be successful in their work, for their own benefit as much as anyone else’s, and subject to external influences or pre-existing baggage, it is likely that this process will be highly effective in preventing or removing misunderstandings and in enhancing relationships, performance and job satisfaction for all concerned. In this vein, I believe it is the primary role of supervisory managers to assist their subordinates to succeed, both as a moral purpose and a practical one – for how can a supervisory manager be successful in his or her role if his or her subordinates are not successful in theirs?

Nerdy stuff –

  • Dopamine is a neurohormone that acts as a neurotransmitter. It is produced in a few different areas of the brain and released by the hypothalmus, with effects that include influencing emotions (eg motivation, reward, sociability) as well as energising through increased pulse and blood pressure.
  • Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal gland on instruction from the pituitary gland, which is located near the brain stem. Like dopamine, its effects are numerous and include those listed in this article.
  • Adrenaline is produced in the medulla in the adrenal glands as well as in some neurons within the central nervous system, and also has numerous effects on the body as a part of its major fight-or-flight survival purpose. These occur commonly where the energy released is not used, which can result in irritability, nervousness, insomnia and even heart damage, and for these reasons I recommend physical exercise not only for its inherent benefits, but as a preferred natural use of the energy released by adrenaline as a part of a balanced, healthy and sustainable mental and physical lifestyle.