Stop Yelling At Your Employees–It’s Making Them Stupid


Recent neuroscience studies contain useful lessons for managers:

Don’t make your employees feel dumb or incompetent–this will make them worse at their jobs.

The “fight-or-flight” response to threats has been studied by psychologists for decades. When animals – including humans – are in pain or physical danger, their neural activity changes radically in ways that help them focus on the threat and confront or escape it effectively. But this focus comes at a cost to other brain functions. A person in danger is better at fighting, but worse at thinking.

More recently, neuroscientists have found that the brain responds to social threats in almost exactly the same way. Brain scans show that people made to feel excluded from group activities respond as if they were in physical pain. Similarly, criticism that makes an employee feel his job is in danger or that his work isn’t as good as that of his co-workers will make his brain respond as if he were in danger.

This is good news if you want your employees to fight or run away, but not so good for office productivity.  David Rock at Strategy+Business (free registration required) explains:

The threat response is both mentally taxing and deadly to the productivity of a person — or of an organisation. Because this response uses up oxygen and glucose from the blood, they are diverted from other parts of the brain, including the working memory function, which processes new information and ideas. This impairs analytic thinking, creative insight, and problem solving; in other words, just when people most need their sophisticated mental capabilities, the brain’s internal resources are taken away from them.

The impact of this neural dynamic is often visible in organisations. For example, when leaders trigger a threat response, employees’ brains become much less efficient. But when leaders make people feel good about themselves, clearly communicate their expectations, give employees latitude to make decisions, support people’s efforts to build good relationships, and treat the whole organisation fairly, it prompts a reward response. Others in the organisation become more effective, more open to ideas, and more creative. They notice the kind of information that passes them by when fear or resentment makes it difficult to focus their attention. They are less susceptible to burnout because they are able to manage their stress. They feel intrinsically rewarded.

Of course, telling your employees to stop doing such a crappy job! without putting them on the defensive can be tricky:

[P]erformance reviews often provoke a threat response; people being reviewed feel that the exercise itself encroaches on their status. This makes 360-degree reviews, unless extremely participative and well-designed, ineffective at generating positive behavioural change. Another common status threat is the custom of offering feedback, a standard practice for both managers and coaches. The mere phrase “Can I give you some advice?” puts people on the defensive because they perceive the person offering advice as claiming superiority. It is the cortisol equivalent of hearing footsteps in the dark.

But there is good news, too: Positive feedback can provide as much of a boost as a promotion, without costing you a dime:

organisations often assume that the only way to raise an employee’s status is to award a promotion. Yet status can also be enhanced in less-costly ways. For example, the perception of status increases when people are given praise. Experiments conducted by Keise Izuma in 2008 show that a programmed status-related stimulus, in the form of a computer saying “good job,” lights up the same reward regions of the brain as a financial windfall. The perception of status also increases when people master a new skill; paying employees more for the skills they have acquired, rather than for their seniority, is a status booster in itself.