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.
A good place to start is with three naturally occurring chemicals that our brains produce instantly and one that takes a few moments more to generate but lasts a longer. The first two are– 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, and fatigue and so on. In practice, 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.
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 embarrassment is stronger, we 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.
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 its role 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.2. Behavior Research
Research shows that, possibly due to the power and longevity of the danger-sensitive cortisol in comparison to the pleasure-rewarding but short-lived effects of dopamine, employees need to feel they receive around 5 genuine compliments for every piece of negative feedback to create a balance where they feel fairly treated. To give you an idea of how commonly that ratio occurs, in exactly ZERO of the organisations I have been engaged by has this balance been achieved prior to me working with them.
3. 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 the neuroscience showed us, raising the bar on challenges also raises the bar on motivation and intrinsic reward – on the basis that 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 recognized 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 behavioral 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 prioritized 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.
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.
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.)
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 rush of positive feedback. 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-fuelled neurobiological rewards and penalties teach either problem-avoidance or challenge-seeking as default behaviour for employees, with a good chance that, if widely 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 are released into the brain of 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 behaviors 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