Brain Science and Managerial Cannibalism

05/13/2010 01:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In 1953, Professor James McConell taught flatworms to run through a maze by administering shocks to them when they took a wrong turn. There was nothing new in this simple demonstration of operant conditioning, but the next phase of the experiment got really interesting. McConell ground up the worms, fed them to another batch, and watched them learn to run through the maze in a much shorter period of time.

During my almost three decades of working with managers in the corporate world, I often wondered if McConell wasn't on to something. Rather than the rewards and threats of punishment employed to improve performance, usually with little effect, it would've been easier and more cost effective to grind up the top performers and feed them to those in need of development.

The problem, of course, is that there is a fundamental difference between worms and human beings. Rather than just react to stimuli, we interpret it and then decide how we will respond. While flat worms may have a rich inner life we're simply not privy to, it doesn't appear to drive their behavior. But our inner life does.

Put a human being in a maze and tell him to negotiate it successfully or you'll administer an electric shock, and the odds are he'll rebel and refuse to participate. He'll be even less willing if he anticipates being ground up and fed to his coworkers, or is served his coworkers for lunch. That's why I never advocated McConell's approach.

Our penchant for thinking, rather than just reacting, is why managers end up with such unreasonable responses to their time-honored practices. They dispense rewards, only to see motivation decrease. The more they punish performance, the worse it gets. The feedback they give produces the opposite of what they intend. It's why Peter Drucker quipped, "Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to do their jobs."

But try telling that to managers hemmed in by a corporate compensation system and mandatory performance appraisals, to say nothing of behavior-oriented training programs. Rather than admitting that the corporate world's vaunted objectivity is an illusion and their managerial practices are self-defeating, it's much easier to conclude that their employees are simply defective.

Corporate clients don't suffer fools gladly, even when they're high priced ones, so management consultants either quickly figure out what works or are masochists. I learned that asking questions to encourage self-feedback, instead of rendering judgments, overcame perceptual conflicts. I saw that better decisions were made when the role of emotion was acknowledged, not denied. And I witnessed higher motivation and better performance when people pursued an inspirational vision rather than just incentive compensation.

But I never had the science, the hard data to explain to my skeptical and hard-nosed clients why these counterintuitive practices worked, until neuroscientists started scanning brains with an fMRI. For the first time in history, we didn't have to philosophize about what's real, construct elaborate models of how we think decisions are made, or speculate about what motivates people. We could watch the brain at work, and theories were replaced with exactly the kind of hard data managers long for and find convincing.

What did the data tell us? We don't record our experience of the world, we construct it with input from the areas of the brain responsible for our memories, beliefs, and desires. Our decisions aren't made with cold objective logic, but with our emotion-generating amygdala. The pleasure inducing neurotransmitter dopamine is released not when we receive a reward, but when we're engaged in the work that leads to a reward.

I wrote Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn't Work and Other Surprising Lessons of the Latest Brain Science so that I could understand why what I had learned from experience the hard way worked so well. It was only once the book was finished that I realized it also provided a justification for the kind of management we all want to believe in. For it turns out that acting with integrity and treating people with respect is actually quite profitable.

But perhaps the greatest benefit of the book is that I'm no longer haunted by fantasies of grinding up high performing managers and feeding them to their less adept counterparts. All I do now is hand out copies of the book and let the science do the rest.