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Leadership: Art & Science Part 2 – Revise your reward system! It might be putting your company at high stake

Written by Silvia Garcia

This is the second part of Silvia’s blog series. Make sure you read part 1 If you Care about Business, you must Care about People first

There are few leaders that have heard about the neurological reward and contentment systems, both at the origin of decisions your employees make. We all know there is a quick way to get people to do what you want them to; ask someone to do something in exchange of a high enough reward and you’ll get an immediate response. Most motivational programs at businesses are built around this. It works for the short term but is proven ineffective for the longer term.

Our brain is biologically inclined to instant gratification and reward. Why? Because motivation and reward seeking are key to our survival. As a species, when our reward system is tickled, it releases dopamine (the hormone that gave us the motivation to endure dangers and tiredness to hunt prey) and cortisol (the hormone that gave us an extra kick of energy when running after the prey). As leaders, we seek to create that type of excitement about goals in our teams (e.g. end year bonus or performance bonus).

However, we need to be careful with this approach because dopamine and cortisol are such powerful drivers of our behavior that the desire to obtain the reward and/or the fear not to get it, can take over our critical thinking and ethical decisions.

Let’s take an example. What role did, what appears to be, an overstimulated reward seeking system play for NASA in 1986?

On January 28th 1986 NASA launched the Space Shuttle Challenger, the first aircraft to carry a non-professional astronaut on the crew, including a school teacher. NASA was the icon of American technological accomplishments, we were in the Space race era, and the US government was eager to see the Challenger in orbit, fearing that doing it quickly, could give an advantage over Russia. The Challenger was going to be the first spaceship able to make it to space, come back home, and be reused in new launches; thus, greatly reducing the cost of the Space Race for America. NASA had done 24 launch assessments to verify the viability of the final launch of the Challenger. Seven out of twenty-four of those assessments concluded that the rubbers that sealed the fuel, called O-rings, had problems when performing under low temperatures. The weather forecast for January 28th, 1986 was 23 F (-5 Celsius) so the day before the launch, NASA scientists called a meeting with the O-ring manufacturer, Morton Thiokol. Morton Thiokol was a proud NASA provider and their business leaders’ primary motivation was NASA’s satisfaction. Morton Thiokol engineers’ primary motivation was to make things work. Thus, fearing the consequences of low temperatures, Morton Thiokol engineers recommended NASA to postpone the Challenger’s launch. NASA was less than pleased to hear that.  Morton Thiokol business leaders asked NASA to let them have a private conversation with their engineers. Roger Boisjoly, one of the engineers attending that meeting remembered how their leaders put pressure on them to reconsider the launch on the following day; telling them that it was a strategic decision and not a technical one. The four senior leaders voted in favor of recommending that NASA pursue with the launch of the Challenger, despite the recommendation not to do so by all the engineers.  The following day, millions of people, including children expecting to receive the first lesson on space, were watching, when 73 seconds after launch, the Challenger spaceship disintegrated and the seven members of the crew died.

What caused the tragedy? Although the first investigations focused on understanding the defective feature of the O-ring’s rubber components that sealed the fuel deposits; later investigations have focused on the essential role of the short-term reward culture at the time.

Reward is the fuel of our dopamine circuit. However, there is the possibility of too much and too little dopamine. It is a matter of balance. Most companies either over-stimulate or under-stimulate employees’ short reward system. Avoid this pitfall.

Read part 3 here!

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