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Monday, August 04, 2008

Neuroscience: Why the carrot and the stick motivate donkeys but not people

Jeff Schwartz, lead author of The Mind and the Brain, a pioneer work in non-materialist neuroscience, is speaking on the neuroscience of leadership is doing a radio show here which you can download.

Neuroscience of leadership? Another useless fad? Not necessarily. Non-materialist neuroscience tends to be practical because so many of the scientists who think that the mind is real (not just an illusion) work in medicine. Their main job is to find treatments that work.

In the article, David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz ask, who do so many management techniques result in an environment parodied in the Dilbert cartoons? They offer interesting information from neuroscience about what is happening in people's brains when they encounter stupid, stunned management, like Dilbert's pointy-headed boss, for example:

Many existing models for changing people’s behavior are drawn from a field called behaviorism. The field emerged in the 1930s and was led by psychologist B.F. Skinner and advertising executive John B. Watson, building on Ivan Pavlov’s famous concept of the conditioned response: Associate the ringing of a bell with food, and a dog can be made to salivate at the sound. The behaviorists generalized this observation to people, and established an approach to change that has sometimes been caricatured as: “Lay out the M&Ms.” For each person, there is one set of incentives — one combination of candy colors — that makes the best motivator. Present the right incentives, and the desired change will naturally occur. If change doesn’t occur, then the mix of M&M colors must be adjusted.

Yet there is plenty of evidence from both clinical research and workplace observation that change efforts based on typical incentives and threats (the carrot and the stick) rarely succeed in the long run. For example, when people routinely come late to meetings, a manager may reprimand them. This may chasten latecomers in the short run, but it also draws their attention away from work and back to the problems that led to lateness in the first place. Another manager might choose to reward people who show up on time with public recognition or better assignments; for those who are late, this too raises anxiety and reinforces the neural patterns associated with the habitual problem. Yet despite all the evidence that it doesn’t work, the behaviorist model is still the dominant paradigm in many organizations. The carrot and stick are alive and well.
Well, the carrot and the stick were designed for use on donkeys, and the assumption is that the donkey is not as smart as his driver. People who think that their employees are much stupider than themselves will usually find quite the opposite - that the employees are aware of the scheme and finding a way to work around it.

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