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Science Tells Us Why Fear-Based Leadership is Ineffective

Science Tells Us Why Fear-Based Leadership is Ineffective

Science tells us why leaders, parents, or teachers use rewards rather than threats to help their team members, students or kids become successful.

When you hear your parents or your boss praise you or recognize your work, how do you feel? It feels good, right? Some of us may not admit it but Science tells us that it feels good and it’s good for us. It helps in increasing focus at work which will also increase productivity and quality output. It is also good for our health. On the other hand, how do you feel when someone threatens you? Some of us may feel see it as a challenge and will battle against it ahead but most of us may just flee or escape. Whether you have mastered the pressures in life or not, you must know how we are engineered to react to these stimuli or triggers or commonly called buttons that are pressed.

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Our brain is the powerhouse of the various systems in our body that work, like a well-oiled machine, day and night. More so like our mission control room. First, let’s see how our brain reacts in times when we are being praised or rewarded for the things that we do. Don’t mind the jargon, just focus on the action! Let’s go to where the action happens, traveling down at the brain’s midsection. Right at the deepest seat lies the mesolimbic pathway or what we call the reward center. Here are the key players in this reward circuit:

Science Tells Us Why Fear-Based Leadership is Ineffective

The VTA or Ventral Tegmental Area, the amygdala is responsible for processing emotions, the Hippocampus, for keeping emotionally driven memories, the nucleus accumbens which helps control motor functions or body movement and the Prefrontal cortex which helps us concentrate or focus or for rational thinking. However, the main character of the story is dopamine. Dopamine, which is produced by the VTA, is one of the many neurotransmitters or chemical messengers in the brain which is responsible for making us experience that feeling of happiness or pleasure. Hence it’s also called the pleasure hormone.

Our senses are the first to receive the reward pathway stimuli or triggers. So when you see the reward or hear your parent recognizing you this will trigger VTA to release dopamine or the pleasure hormone and goes to the parts of the circuit with Dopamine receptors (or receivers) like the amygdala, the nucleus accumbens, and the prefrontal cortex.

Let’s look even closer and see how the neurons or the cells of these key players receive the pleasure hormone! Each neuron or brain cell, when triggered, generates an electrical signal which helps release the neurotransmitters or the chemical messenger like dopamine, which is then received by another neuron. When dopamine is released from the VTA, the electrical signal in the neuron of the VTA pushes the dopamine to the neuron of the receivers like the amygdala. The moment the dopamine receptors of the amygdala receive these dopamine molecules, it will produce the appropriate emotion like feeling happy or excited. The hippocampus which is connected to the amygdala will remember everything about it or that our senses can detect and will hold this memory in the core forever and will demand that we do it again!

The nucleus accumbens which helps control motor function or body movement will do the action again and again. The dopamine received in the prefrontal cortex will trigger increased focus on that reward or on that action and divert most of our consciousness to it. Therefore we will 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, Serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for feelings of satisfaction or contentment. With the upsurge of Dopamine, Serotonin goes down which will make you less likely to be content. So your people will want more of the reward or maybe become the best and will increase their level of performance. Remember, their prefrontal cortex will help them increase the level of focus they need to fire up more bright ideas. They will then compete with their previous output as they want a higher level of such pleasure! This is why there are people who subject themselves to a substance or drug abuse because these natural triggers are simply not present. Their parents don’t care or they feel unwanted. Remember that these drugs trigger an exaggerated level of dopamine that will lose the brain’s balanced function.

Now, how about threats? What if your boss or teacher uses a threat to make your move? How does our brain react to it? The hypothalamus will release the neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, and cortisol or the stress hormones. Norepinephrine reaches the amygdala which triggers the feeling of fear.

Science Tells Us Why Fear-Based Leadership is Ineffective

This will result in the hippocampus capturing it in its fear memories; hence we will remember everything about this threat. This can lead to acute phobias or trigger the “fight or flight response”. This will cause us to either fight or avoid as soon as we see signs of these threats. Norepinephrine also extends to the prefrontal cortex which will suppress rational thought or concentration. We may do the craziest things that we will regret soon after. This means that if we use threats, we 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 soldier deployed throughout our body to safeguard our heart, lungs, immune system, metabolism, and circulation which help us deal with this threat. This can make us feel nervous with the heartbeat and breathing increased as the stress level increases. This is bad for our health. It will make us weak and would be vulnerable to illnesses.

This will result in the hippocampus capturing it in its fear memories; hence we will remember everything about this threat. This can lead to acute phobias or trigger the “fight or flight response”. This will cause us to either fight or avoid as soon as we see signs of these threats. Norepinephrine also extends to the prefrontal cortex which will suppress rational thought or concentration. We may do the craziest things that we will regret soon after. This means that if we use threats, we 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 soldier deployed throughout our body to safeguard our heart, lungs, immune system, metabolism, and circulation which help us deal with this threat. This can make us feel nervous with the heartbeat and breathing increased as the stress level increases. This is bad for our health. It will make us weak and would be vulnerable to illnesses.

God has beautifully crafted and engineered our brains to function right with perfect coordination and will always aim for balance to sustain a quality life. It is His gift. We are designed to be able to withstand the stresses life brings but we do not have the right to abuse what was created for us. As parents, teachers, and leaders, we are blessed with the power to empower others. Your words can either break or make them.  

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Published by Fran SRdD

Fran Saguindang Riego de Dios, MS has been in training and leadership development for 20 years now. She's the Founder & CEO of Fraoel Consulting. She earned her Masters degree in Biology and eventually explored the corporate world (specifically in the BPO industry). While she runs her own consulting business, part-time, she is also a corporate leader in one of the biggest players in the BPO industry in the Philippines. 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. Her first book "5 Whys to Discover Your Purpose: A Life Journal" and her 2nd book "The Uncomfortable Truth About Leading People - Leadership Lessons" were published independently. Visit Books Project to learn more. Fran likes to use her science background to help leaders understand their people more and help them grow. She also enjoys art and music. And all her original music are available on Spotify and Apple Music. Her Project by Fran Podcast is on Spotify too. You may also visit her personal Leadership Blog Site, Leadership Project. Take also some of her FREE Online Courses here, Fran SRdD University.

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