Always the question is: “How do I reward my people to maximize individual and group endeavors?”  That leads to more detailed enquiries: “What model do I follow for rewards?  How do I know if it will be effective?”   Fortunately, the answer for a model lies readily before us, just under (or should I say, above) our noses – the model of the human brain!

1.  Reward as a Fundamental Human Property

Humans could not function if their brains did not contain reward circuitry.  Reward circuits tell us that eating is fun, that sex is stunning, that exercise is stimulating, that gathering information (the learning) is enriching.  It does this through a number of chemicals, opiates in fact, no different than those purchased on the street.

In fact the reason people enjoy the street drugs is because of brains have been designed to enjoy them.  The only difference is that street drugs have a feature that bypasses the normal regulatory system in the brain that would otherwise shut off an overload – so, the overloaded brain goes to an artificial high – but by exactly the same stimulants.

The brain is composed of many departments: heartbeat regulation, fight-or-flight instinct, face recognition, following eye movement of others, (reference 4), grammar manipulation (reference 5), fear of snakes (reference 7), etc., all of which are demonstrated in infants who have not yet had a chance to learn these things from their environments.

The point however, is that, humans (and other animals) have reward circuitry that is just as much a part of them as emotional circuitry, breathing controls of the brain or social bonds wiring. 

  1. The Advantage of the Rewards

Because of this reward sensitivity, humans will take actions that are pleasing and Mother Nature achieves its aim of ensuring that the species will do what is good for it.  It will eat, it will procreate, it will strengthen itself and it will learn.  Thereby, the human species will most likely ensure its survival – perpetuate itself.  Clearly rewards have a important advantage to humans.

  1. Short Term vs. Long Term

As we go about our daily tasks, we are, for the most part, confronted with choices about taking actions for the short term and the long term.  For

example, we must decide whether to answer the phone while working to complete a report due this week.  We usually answer the phone.  The needs of the short term will dominate those of the long term because taking short term actions usually ensures our immediate survival.  The old adage of “I can’t drain the swamp until I get the alligator off my butt” expresses the short-term long-term dilemma and priorities.

In work we are inundated daily with a myriad of short-term tasks as we try to do what is good for the long term of our situation.  Hence references are made to the high-pressure, quick response and conflicting demands of the office with monikers such as: the ‘sausage factory’, the ‘gopher-bopping gallery’ or simply ‘another day at the office’.

Our intellect tells us that we need to perform certain tasks for the long term benefit of our job.  Yet our emotions seem to command us (not to mention our boss) to get the short-term items done first.

We know, and certainly if we don’t know we hear it preached, that the long term must be balanced with the short term.  A common example today is the work-life balance.  The short term demands of a 60-hour week at the office conflicts with the long-term desires of a normal home life.  We struggle to bring the two into balance.

Which one wins?  Well, it is the short term.  We have to fight to ensure that the long term is considered.  For most of us, short term considerations will dominate long term; it is not natural to allow long term to dominate short term; we respond to short-term demands first (reference 1).  Therefore recognizing the importance of the neglected long term, we consciously endeavor to address long term issues systematically – annual planning, employee training, staff reviews, etc.  No doubt, however, that when we’re engaged in planning and training we think of all the short-term tasks ‘we should be doing’.

  1. Why does the Short Term Dominate?

Intuitively we know the short term dominates our behavior but what is really happening in our brain to make that the norm?

It begins with a little understood part of the brain called the amygdala.  It evolved at least 20 or 50 million years ago in our mouse-like mammalian ancestors to protect us from being eaten by our neighbors.  It processes fight or flight signals and responses when we are confronted with threats.  We must act quickly if we wish to live to see another day.  As a result, the moment we sense a challenge, threat or impending disaster, the amygdala switches into gear to prepare our entire body for the needed action to survive the moment i.e. a response to the short term situation.

Survival preparations stem from a pretty advanced instinctive system (reference 3):  as soon as the threatening signal arrives, the pupils dilate to gain a better visual image, the saliva decreases to slow down the digestive system – not required for the emergency, the thyroid gland raises the metabolic rate, the bronchioles dilate to take in more oxygen, the liver begins to break down glycogen for instant energy, the adrenal medulla floods the bloodstream with adrenaline increasing the level of blood sugar and constricting blood vessels where blood is not needed.  As if that were not enough, the body continues its preparations as the bladder and colon prepare to void their contents, the stomach and gastrointestinal tract vessels constrict to divert blood to the muscles, the spleen pumps out white blood cells and platelets in preparation for possible injury, the heart rate and blood pressure spike infusing brain and muscles with fuel, skin vessels constrict causing chills and sweat and the arm hairs stand on end (to make the mouse in us larger and more ferocious to the enemy).

What is particularly interesting about the amygdala that relates to the rewards-in-the-brain topic of this paper is that as a processor, it reacts 10 to 100 times faster than the logic part of the brain.  It has to!  If we are logically trying to decide if we should run from the saber toothed tiger, we will be left like a dithering contemplative Hamlet in the jaws of the tiger, never able to see another day.  By reacting first and then thinking about it later, we survive first and then we can do our contemplation.  In simple daily events we experience this same phenomenon by reacting to a challenge and then, later in the day when the logic processor kicks in, wondering “Why did I ever say such a stupid thing to her?”  The answer: Your amygdala was just trying to protect you.

The conclusion here is that the short term dominates because the amygdala makes sure that it does.  It does so because it knows that if you do not survive the short term you will never live to see the long term.

  1. Human Balance

But this human brain of ours is quite clever.  Having ensured our day-to-day, short-term survival with the amygdala processor, the brain realizes there has to be a balance for the needs of the long term to ensure the long term survival.  Knowing that the short term will naturally dominate, how can the brain bypass the immediate response to do things that are good for the long term of the human, such as the survival of the species (as opposed to the survival of the individual)?  Enter the opiate rewards system.  Let’s look at how it rewards our behavior towards the long term.

We like to eat.  Why?  The opiates tell us eating is fun.  While eating ensures our short-term survival, what we are truly attracted to is something that ensures our long term.  For example, fatty and sweet foods appeal to us – hit our opiates and our reward circuits.  Logically we know that sweets and fats are ‘bad’ for us but a bag of our favorite candies, potato chips or poutine tastes sooooo good!  If we eat them the opiates pour into our brain as a reward for doing so.  By eating sugar we arm our system with energy needed should an emergency arise (that damned saber toothed tiger).  We laden our body with fat, so that should our food supply dry up we will have several weeks or months of reserve aliments that the body can slowly consume.  Logically we know how to diet (long term thinking) but yet our society spends billions of dollars per year helping people overcome opposing short-term forces.  Our long-term diet plans go out the window the moment we get a whiff of those freshly-baked donuts.

How about sex?  A plethora of opiates are triggered even at the thought of sex, reaching a climax when we actually reach a climax.  This serves our long term interests by creating more little human beings, assuring our species’ survival.

And exercise?  Yes indeed, it’s the same story.  Most regular exercisers report a wonderful feeling, a sense of well-being after completing a run or a weight lift.  Of course, a person who exercises builds up strength for the fight or flight that might be required for future survival.

Did we forget music?  Whether classical music creates goose bumps on your arms or rock gets your emotional response, the results are the same – music provides a diversion from your everyday tensions and stress in order to bring you a more assured future.

Now onto learning.  If, as you read these pages, you find the material interesting, your learning opiates will demand that you continue (or conversely to quit wasting your time).  That is, a natural high comes from learning things that we value.

  1. Transferring the Brain Model to the Workplace

What do we learn from the above?  The human brain reward systems seem to focus on the long term, recognizing that the short term will take care of itself (or more specifically, will be dominant because of the rapid-acting circuitry of the amygdala).  Therefore we might be well advised to design our workplace reward systems to achieve long term results.

Intrinsic rewards, the sense of well being are already there, driving the opiates, without our having to interfere (reference 2).  For example, when we accomplish a task satisfactorily we get a sense of well-being that drives us to seek the next challenge or to raise the bar for the present challenge.

It is the extrinsic rewards (reference 2), the pay, the bonuses and the commissions, that we have the ability to control as reward mechanisms.  They have a short-term effect only.  So we want to apply that short-term effect to create a long-term benefit just as our brain does with its opiates.

Already in another paper, The Myths of Rewards (reference 6), we make the case that extrinsic rewards don’t work.  In fact they are not even neutral; in most cases they cause more damage than if they were not there at all.  So, we must rely on intrinsic rewards and thus, apply extrinsic rewards carefully by means and for reasons outlined in this paper.

  1. Rewards that follow the Brain Model

To emulate the brain model, you must think of the long-term benefit you wish to achieve.  Then you must reward a short-term activity – the opiate – that will lead to the long-term attainment of that goal.

As an example, let’s look at sales.  Instead of rewarding for each sale, which only satisfies short-term company needs, reward in such a way that a long-term benefit will accrue. What is the long-term benefit we seek?  Well, among them growth in sales is obviously one – but it must be accompanied by employee cooperation, well-being and finally by customer retention and growth of purchase amount.

Instead of rewarding for individual sales results, reward for the cooperative group results each month.  Customer retention will depend on quality of product and perhaps customer service.  So these people need short-term rewards for doing their job well, as much as any salesperson does.  Of course, each situation has to be looked at in its own light.

Once, I ran a group of technical inventory cataloguers who had strict production quotas attached to increasingly difficult accuracy standards as established by the client.  We decided that not only must the work be done quickly, but also the route to quickness was contingent on accuracy, because any rejected, and therefore re-worked, item would slow the process down considerably.

The group’s short-term bonus, as determined by the group would be time off.  Therefore, each week, when the group quota (quantity and low reject rate) was reached the group could leave the project.  It soon reached a point where the group would finish by the end of Thursday and consistently enjoyed 3-day weekends.  The project’s longevity was assured.  More importantly, the client’s goals were guaranteed.

It is interesting that the extrinsic reward of days off was accompanied by a large intrinsic reward component.  There was immense pride in the group members and a sense of self satisfaction when they could say goodbye for the weekend to other people belonging to the client organization working on the same project.  Our group’s production rate climbed to 4 times that of the competitive group and the accuracy rate was about 4 times higher (as measured by a complicated formula).

  1. Conclusion

The point of this paper is that if you are going to use extrinsic rewards (and at the outset we don’t recommend them unless you use great care), use them in a way that will work for you – that will create a long-term benefit to your organization with a short-term recognition in some form – just as the brain has modeled for us.