More Proof: Frequent Positive Feedback Is Strongest Motivator (and Brain Chemistry Confirms It)

Recognize This! – Dopamine isn’t just the “reward” – it’s the driver of how our brains make us act to receive rewards.

A common question I hear in workshops and meetings is, “Doesn’t too much recognition make it become routine and expected?” I’ve written before about the importance of frequent, timely recognition and several research studies prove it, too (such as this study from Stanford University and Harvard Business School research reported in The Progress Principle.)

Now, research into how dopamine acts in our brains proves the point more strongly.

 “It turns out dopamine’s true effect may be motivation. Dopamine performs its task before we obtain rewards, meaning that its real job is to encourage us to act and motivate us to achieve or avoid something bad…

“A team of Vanderbilt scientists mapped the brains of ‘go-getters’ and ‘slackers’ and found that those willing to work hard for rewards had higher dopamine levels in the striatum and prefrontal cortex—two areas known to impact motivation and reward. Among slackers, dopamine was present in the anterior insula, an area of the brain that is involved in emotion and risk perception. As [behavioral neuroscientist John] Salamone explains, “Low levels of dopamine make people and other animals less likely to work for things, so it has more to do with motivation and cost/benefit analyses than pleasure itself.”

What does this mean for motivating employees (and ourselves)?

“The brain can be trained to feed off of bursts of dopamine sparked by rewarding experiences. You create the dopamine environment, and the brain does the rest. One way to achieve this is by setting incremental goals, according to neurologist Judy Willis. In essence, what you are doing is rewiring the brain to attach a dopamine response to the task you want as a reward. Allow yourself to experience frequent positive feedback as you progress through a series of goals. Dopamine will flow as a result of your brain’s positive reinforcement every time you complete a step and meet a challenge.”

Or, more simply put:

“Dopamine has a biological connection to our motivation to achieve. If there’s anything we can do to increase the flow of dopamine like reinforcing positive feedback through incremental progress, embrace it.”

Well said, indeed. How can you reach out to positively recognize others’ efforts and contributions more frequently? How have you seen such frequent, positive reinforcement impact your own motivation and results?

Derek Irvine

About Derek Irvine

The VP of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their organizations. As a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition, he teaches companies how to use recognition to proactively manage company culture. Derek holds a B.Comm and Masters of Business Studies from the Smurfit Graduate Business School at University College Dublin.

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