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How To Tap Into The Neuroscience Of Winning

Building dopamine feedback loops into the challenges you set for employees can keep them motivated.

How To Tap Into The Neuroscience Of Winning
[Photo: Thanapun via Shutterstock]

Success feels good. It’s why hitting ambitious targets can be so satisfying and the reason we celebrate after wrapping up big projects. It’s also the source of the excitement around super-competitive businesses like stock market trading.

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Understanding the neuroscience behind this feeling–how it happens and what it can help us achieve–is a great place to start when it comes to getting the most out of motivation.

The Dopamine Rush

Though we sometimes feel the effects of succeeding throughout our bodies, the key to understanding winning lies in the brain. When we succeed at something, our brains release chemical rewards, the most important of which is the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical best known for the role it plays in addiction and drug use. Despite this association, dopamine is a natural part of how our brains function, producing the sensation of pleasure whenever you taste coffee or chocolate, or when you achieve a big win.

So it’s no surprise that dopamine is strongly connected to motivation, driving us to repeat the behaviors that create that rush, even when we aren’t experiencing it. In other words, the dopamine response isn’t just a short-term thing. Our brains remember what it feels like, and we’re driven as a result to seek it out again and again.

The Feedback Loop

This is something that computer games have been particularly good at tapping into. Whether you’re spending hours exploring the world of Skyrim, tapping away at Candy Crush Saga on your phone, or watching in bemusement as your kids spend hours playing Minecraft, you’re seeing dopamine feedback loops in action.

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Not only does the dopamine rush that comes from success lead you to want more success, your brain even starts to anticipate that sensation in advance. After repeated successes at something, you may begin to feel smaller bursts of pleasure even before hitting that win the next time. But there’s also a slow weakening of the impact with each new instance of it. What felt like a big achievement at the start gradually feels less and less significant. The dopamine rewards are no longer great enough for the thrill your brain now craves.

Under the right circumstances, this can drive us to seek out ever-greater thrills. Behavioral game design uses these feedback loops to keep players constantly engaged, and it’s arguably been abused in some cases to keep players addicted. Where exactly that line falls is hard to know, but it’s important to keep an eye on outcomes. When dopamine feedback loops motivate us towards bigger and better achievements, they’re often seen as good things. When they lock us into destructive behavior, they aren’t.

So how can we make the most productive and beneficial use of our brain’s natural chemical processes?

Hooked On Work (In A Good Way)

The neuroscience of success can be used to motivate employees as well as to identify the areas where we’re going wrong. For one thing, there can be no feedback loop in the first place if we don’t provide employees with those initial feelings of success. Investing in your team members and keeping them engaged for the long haul means offering them early opportunities to achieve things that actually matter, not just delivering hollow praise.

Once that groundwork is laid, employers can build mounting feedback loops. They can create new, more challenging opportunities for employees to build on their earlier successes and receive fresh dopamine buzzes from the work they do over time. The important thing is that each new success is followed by an opportunity to aim for the next one, which utilizes skills and experience gained while pursuing the prior one.

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It’s no use just setting the same goals week after week, as the buzz from these will wear off, leaving employees unsatisfied. We need to provide everyone with the chance to hit bigger targets, even if they remain in the same role. Needless to say, keeping everyone on your team motivated isn’t easy, since it requires managers to continuously give each employee new, steadily more difficult work.

But the rewards–from productivity to employee retention–can be worth it. Conversely, a basic understanding of the neuroscience of success also helps us sort out why some of the work and goals we set aren’t always motivating. Perhaps they draw on skills someone has already mastered, and the project feels redundant. Or maybe they’re too challenging for a given employee’s experience level, and they need to work up to them over time. Whatever the case, bearing this in mind can help managers keep their employees consistently motivated with a healthy biochemical buzz.

About the author

Mark Lukens is a founding partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. He has 20-plus years of C-Level experience across multiple sectors including health care, education, government, and talent/human resources.

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