On Effective Leadership: How Our Brain Reacts To Reward And Threat

Blog Post

Some leaders use threat to push people to work while others use rewards and recognition to galvanize people to bring quality output.

What really works?

In order to understand fully, let’s discover how our brain is stimulated by reward and threat and how we are engineered to react to these stimuli.

When your boss recognized your great work, how did you feel? You felt good and empowered, right? Some of us may not admit it but Science tells us that being recognized ultimately feels good. Effective recognition (highlight the specific action and outcome) helps in increasing focus at the job, thus further increases productivity and quality output. It is also good for our health as it is like a happy pill!

it is like a happy pill

On the other hand, how did you feel when your boss scolded or embarrassed you? Some of us may feel challenged and will battle against it head on, which can be stressful and is not good for our well-being. However most of us may just flee or escape.

Our brain is the powerhouse of the various systems in our body working like a well-oiled machine, day and night. Let’s learn how our brain normally reacts in times when we are being praised or rewarded for the things that we do.

Reward Center

Right at the deepest seat of your brain lies the mesolimbic pathway or what we call the reward center. 

Here are the key players in this reward circuit: The VTA or Ventral Tegmental Area (releases Dopamine or the “happy hormone”), the Amygdala (responsible for processing emotions), the Hippocampus (for keeping emotionally driven memories), the Nucleus Accumbens (controls motor functions or body movement), and the Prefontral Cortex (for focus & rational thinking).

Our senses

Our senses are the first to receive the reward pathway triggers, like positive words and actions. So when the Dopamine is released from the VTA, the electrical signal in the neuron of the VTA pushes the Dopamine to the neuron of the Amygdala (processes emotion). The moment the dopamine receptors of Amygdala receive these dopamine molecules, it will trigger the appropriate emotion- like feeling happy or excited. The Hippocampus that is connected to the Amygdala will store this happy memory and will demand that we experience it again!

The Nucleus Accumbens (control motor function or body movement) certainly participates so the same quality of output or action that caused the feeling is repeated. The Dopamine is also received by the Prefrontal Cortex which triggers increased focus on that reward and divert most of our consciousness to it. Therefore we desire that everything is repeated so continued pleasure is experienced.

This reward pathway therefore tells us that if we make our people, kids or students feel good about what they do, they will certainly repeat the action.

Another neurotransmitter or chemical messenger comes into play is the Serotonin (triggers the feeling of satisfaction or content). The upsurge of Dopamine will cause Serotonin to go down which makes us become less likely to be contented (as in substance abuse). Our people will want more of the reward and will increase their level of performance. Remember that their Prefrontal Cortex will increase the level of focus so the may fire up more bright ideas this time around. They will then make a better output than the previous to achieve a higher level of such pleasure! 

reward will increase level of performance


How about threat? What if your boss likes to threaten or gets mad at you to make you move? How does our brain react to it?  The Hypothalamus releases the neurotransmitters, Norepinephrine (triggers fear) and Cortisol (stress hormone).

When Norepinephrine reaches the Amygdala, this triggers fear and consequently the “fight or flight” response. This response is part of our survival instinct. We either fight or flee to survive. Norepinephrine also extends all the way to the Pre-frontal Cortex which suppresses rational thought or reduces level of focus. This means that if we use threat we may either drive them away or their productivity or quality of work diminishes, worst they will commit more errors.

Cortisol on the other hand, acts as a group of soldiers deployed throughout our body to safeguard our heart, lungs, immune system, metabolism and circulation and help us cope with stress or threat. It helps increase oxygen and blood flow (heart rate increases) which certainly is a threat to our well-being. We become vulnerable to stress-triggered illnesses and conditions like cancer and obesity.

The Hippocampus captures all these and are added into out fear memories. Hence we remember everything about this threat which may lead to acute phobias and if prolonged can become a chronic.

Science tells us why parents and teachers must use rewards than threat to motivate kids to learn, persevere and become successful adults in the future.

God has beautifully crafted and engineered our brain cells to function its purpose and in perfect coordination to sustain quality life and survive. We are  clearly  designed to be able to withstand stresses life brings to a certain extent. As parents, teachers or leaders, we are blessed to be given the power to empower others. Let us teach and coach them patiently. Our mission as leaders has always been to make them better individuals and not to cause unnecessary stress or pressures that will discourage them to pursue their dreams. We discover their strengths or what makes them motivated and we support them all the way through. #Godisfaithful

Published by fran

Fran Saguindang Riego de Dios, MS has been in training and leadership development for 15 years now. She was awarded one of the Most Talented Training & Development Leaders in the Philippines 2019 during the 14th Employer Branding Awards by Employer Branding Institute. She also enjoys art and music. You may also visit her personal Leadership Blog Site at Leadership Project.

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