Posted by: kenwbudd | January 13, 2010

Reward Success Immediately: Positive Re-enforcement

It’s a management maxim that managers should freely issue praise where praise is due. Unfortunately, most business environments seem more focused on punishing failure and attributing blame.

Do not stray from the path, just yet. There is solid neuroscience behind the idea of recognising and acknowledging success, according to research led by neuroscientist Earl Miller of MIT and published in Neuron.

Miller and his team have created a unique snapshot of the learning process that shows us how single cells change their responses, in real time, as a result of information about what is the right action and what is the wrong one.

“We have shown that brain cells keep track of whether recent behaviours were successful or not,” Miller said. Furthermore, when a behaviour was successful, cells became more finely tuned to what the animal was learning. After a failure, there was little or no change in the brain – nor was there any improvement in behaviour.

The study sheds light on the neural mechanisms linking environmental feedback to neural plasticity – the brain’s marvellous ability to change and adapt in response to experience.

The experiments used our nearest and most interesting relatives, the monkeys. They were given a simple task of looking at computer images and by trial and error, they learned which way they were supposed to look depending on the picture. Correct decisions were rewarded and therefore an effect was caused by the correct behaviour. Wrong decisions were not, thus the behaviour was ‘ineffective’ or ‘unaffecting.’

“If the monkey just got a correct answer, a signal lingered in its brain that said, ‘You did the right thing.’ Right after a correct answer, neurons processed information more sharply and effectively, and the monkey was more likely to get the next answer correct as well,” Miller said, “But after an error there was no improvement. In other words, only after successes, not failures, did brain processing and the monkeys’ behaviour improve.”

There’s one catch – the time period for this enhanced feedback mechanism appears to be very short, mere seconds after the moment of success. So, praise or other rewards need to happen in real time to exploit this particular neural mechanism.

With much of today’s work occurring in front of a computer screen, technology can also be employed to recognise when a success event has occurred and providing immediate positive feedback.

Regardless, managers should ensure that they do provide both real-time and subsequent re-enforcement of successful actions. In addition to the recent MIT research, there’s plenty of literature that shows that appropriately recognising and rewarding employee success has a positive impact on the workplace.


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