Be a workhorse—target your messages to pain and pleasure

by | Feb 11, 2014 | Blog | 0 comments

Are you pulled by vision or pushed by pain?

Your brain shows a preference.

You either prefer to approach pleasurable opportunities or you make a point to avoid potentially painful experiences.

For example, do you want to floss your teeth to improve your breath and the health of your gums? Or do you want to floss now to avoid bad breath and gum disease later?

Dr. Elliot Berkman, Assistant Professor of Psychology and director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience lab at the University of Oregon and also a lead professor at the NeuroLeadership Institute, used this example in our class to start to explain approach-avoidance motivation.

Most people—especially leaders—are approach oriented, although this depends on context. (For example, some of us may tackle big goals at work, but invest our 401k account in the safest funds available because we don’t want to run the risk of losing any of our principal.)

Leaders need to know their employees. That way leaders can match their messages to their employees’ preference.

Brain-imaging research shows asymmetry in how the prefrontal cortex (the executive function) of the brain responds to pleasure and pain. When there’s a match–approach message to approach-oriented person and avoidance message to avoid-oriented person–there’s a reaction.)

Granted, doing brain scans of your employee population is unlikely these days due to the expense, time and intrusive nature. Who knows what the future will bring though?

For now, you can listen to the language and observe the behavior of the individuals you most closely work with. The clues will give you insights as to whether they are approach or avoidance motivated.

For reaching and communicating with others whom you don’t know as well, the next best thing is to craft both types of messages and share them.

Employees can then self-select what they want to pay attention to, Dr. Berkman advised. 

For example, you can explain that we’re undertaking the transformation to grow the organization to better serve our clients as well as provide more opportunities to employees.  Also, if we stand still and stay with the status quo, we risk getting drubbed by the competition and becoming obsolete.

What’s the risk of forcing an “approach” message on an “avoidance” person or vice versa?

According to Dr. Berkman, the mismatch can cause stress, due to cognitive dissonance. (That’s the technical term for feeling incongruence between thoughts and actions.)

That stress can cause individuals to stop thinking clearly, much less creatively. They also can be less open to new ideas.

So if you want you and your employees to be happy, healthy and hard-working workhorses in this Chinese Year of the Horse, target your messages for both pleasure and pain.

Will this action be a pleasure or pain for you?


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