Praise and Criticism: How Can Neuroscience Shape Leadership?

You probably react better to a leader who praises you rather than criticises you? Someone who is constantly building you up and making you sound good is far more attractive than someone constantly knocking you down.

But good leadership is more complex than this. It is about getting the best out of people. This may not be achieved simply by consistent praise. There is a place for the right type of criticism – and the brain shows us why.

The brain’s response to praise and criticism

Praise obviously makes most of us feel good; but have you noticed how many people react less strongly to praise than they do to criticism?

Neuroscience tells us that, when we are praised, the brain produces the neurochemical oxytocin. This is transported from the hypothalamus, where it is made, to the pituitary gland at the base of the brain, where it is secreted.

Oxytocin is sometimes called the ‘love hormone’ because it is associated with things that make us feel good; high levels are often seen in couples during the first six months of their relationship, it is released during sex, and plays a crucial role in regulating the childbirth and breastfeeding functions.

Oxytocin helps us experience pleasure, but often in a transient, passing way.

When we are criticised, any criticism or insult can be perceived by the brain as a threat, producing an entirely different neuro-response that often lasts longer in the memory.

A stress response promotes the release of cortisol, which is produced in the adrenal cortex, within the adrenal gland above the kidneys. This results in physical changes in the body, as it prepares for a ‘fight or flight’ response, narrowing the arteries and increasing heart rate.

This strong physical reaction makes us remember the event more clearly, explaining why we often remember bad events more clearly than good events.

How can we apply this in the workplace?

Knowing that criticism can produce negative, but deeply experienced responses, while praise tends to lead to positive, but less deeply experienced responses, may be something that leaders want to bear in mind.

Praise should be balanced with constructive criticism. Not finger-pointing and blame, which will induce a stress response, but consistently highlighting where improvements can be made. Feedback should not simply wash over our people, going ‘in one ear and out the other’. For it to stick and be acted upon positively, it needs to be more deeply experienced.

This represents a fine line for leadership to tread.

The NeuroPower Group is at the forefront of introducing new approaches to organisational development through the findings of neuroscience. We apply them to all types of businesses, developing high performing teams and enhancing leadership.

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