Leadership of Motivation — Part 3

The Ethics and Practicality of Incentives

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Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

The Enabling or Limiting Factors of our Brain: The Triad of Intelligence

A team of researchers led by Paul MacLean at the National Institute of Health has synthesized the work on the brain done by themselves and several major research centers. They have developed a construct of three brains or neurological systems in humans that act vertically and as an integrated unit similar to the interaction we have already seen in our behavior and value structures. Charles Krone has developed a set of intelligences and processes for developing them that correlate directly to these brains. (Krone: 1993) These structures gives us a scientific, psychological, and even physiological base for understanding the functioning of our behavior and values.

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Our brain is composed of three parts, literally organized in three segments. Part of this triune design of our brain structure is shared with reptiles, and part with mammals. The third part is shared partially with higher mammals, e.g. primates, but within the third part is a smaller though distinctively important part that is unique to humans.

All brains and intelligences are working all the time, primarily outside our control and awareness, therefore not to their full potential. It is critical to develop the capacity of the higher intelligences, because without this development, the lower brain and intelligences usurp the higher capacities into the service of the more primitive “defensive and territorial systems” of the reptilian brain. But with development the higher intelligences and more human sections of the thinking brain automatically integrate the lower brain and associated intelligences into the thinking brain’s service and employs all thinking processes to their best advantage. (Pearce: 1992).

The reptilian brain is conservative by its nature and seeks habituation, permanence, and stability. It correlates with the stimulus-response mechanism that is studied by the behaviorists when they look at animals. Their extrapolation to humans is correct also as far as our reptilian brain is concerned. However even these stimulus response mechanisms can be guided, directed, and modulated when put into the service of the higher intelligences.

The middle brain, or limbic brain, maintains all relationship at the physical level of the body as well as the emotions bonds between individuals, families, and societies. This brain also has responsibility for dreaming, visioning, and intuition. It can help the lower brain determine whether there is a true emergency or threat and develop appropriate action. It can help individuals overcome their competitiveness in settings where this is inappropriate and to design cooperative efforts where needed. If it is not well developed, the lower brain will use its emotions to bring an emergency to a fever pitch and to become carried away with fear or other intense emotions.

The middle brain has functional aspects of its own and it can provide the reflective intelligence needed to make best use of the sensory motor and physical processes of our lower brain. Since the middle brain can scheme, and figure out ways to predict and control our environment and other people, be philosophical and poetic, inventive and emotional, it is a powerful force when co-opted by the lower brain or a potent manager when developed as a guiding force of the lower brain.

The thinking brain, or neo-cortex, if developed can radically alter the potential of both the other brains. It incorporates instantly the learning of the two other brains. But most importantly it can use them for higher purposes. Managing the lower brains takes only a small amount of energy from the neo-cortex because it is designed for constantly evolving and intervening in the constructs we hold of the universe and reality itself. When the neo-cortex brain is undeveloped we tend to get stuck in defensive or emotional postures and the higher system is forced to focus on the needs of the lower system. Since this takes very little effort the higher systems for the most part is simply put on idle until such time as the coast is clear. If this happens often enough for long enough, the highest system tends to atrophy and what is developed of this brain becomes dormant.

What does this suggest for leadership? It is not merely a matter of putting the minds of our people to work-using the potential of people. People will tend to put to work the reptilian brain, particular if the involvement of people is accompanied by incentives of any sort. The upper brain and its corresponding intelligence is not developed in our culture through families or schools, or work environments with so few exceptions that we can only use this brain in the service of our self-preservation and belonging values which tend to be ramrodded by our lower and maybe middle brain.

Most organizational work designs today provide lots of food and fuel for the reptilian brain and intelligences. Some new work designs are initially nourishing the middle brain, without really developing it and giving the guiding capability needed to manage a now unruly and quite strong lower brain. The higher brain its not yet considered in work designs for any level of system—educational, business, or societal. Think of the potential of a nation or an industry, or a leader who had all three brains/intelligences developed.

The design and implementation of incentive programs impact almost exclusively on only the lower brain, even though most managers would say they are working on the qualities we have spoken of for the middle brain and even some of the higher brain. The programs are intended to get a specific predictable response that produces some habitual result in the organization. Even though designers hope to provide encouragement and self-esteem to the winners or recipients of such programs, the lack of relationship to purpose, the production of losers (i.e. those who did not win) tends to trigger the lower brain sensing threat among the majority of the members of the organization.

An organization that works on the development of all three brains, and the intelligences that go with them, is creating a culture that will enable the full development and expression of a complete value base. This makes possible a whole set of behaviors guided in their execution by the thinking brain that has the potential for creating development and evolution of us as businesses and nations.

Some of you, at this point, will think you now see a way to make incentives work by trying to appeal to and provide incentives to higher values, and mental capacities. Rest assured that the nature of incentives themselves works to make this impossible. Incentives have the effect of conditioning, just as Pavlov’s dog was conditioned by the ringing of the bell for food. Because the incentives are environmental stimuli we are nurturing the lower reactive self that seeks self preservation and gratification. Buy outs of such programs are frequently necessary. Because these programs initially engaged the conservative reptilian brain they are confronted with the conservative brain throughout implementation and even cancellation. The behaviorists are right about it working — at least to some degree.

We may be effective in producing the expected response in some, but then it is necessary to accept the trade off of activating the lower nature of human psychology that does not use judgment. This mindset is the same one that leads some people to see society as “owing them”. This is becoming even more pervasive since the practice of incentives has also invaded the home and schools where children are taught from a young age to expect rewards for efforts or in many cases to see themselves as never able to achieve the rewards.

Incentive cultures cause us to look to others for thoughts about what is best to pursue and even the worth of our efforts. We slowly lose the ability to assess our own actions and their appropriateness and to test and upgrade our own thinking. We are not enabled to develop critical thinking skills. Even if these skills are being taught in training courses, the value for them is expressed principally by leadership actions. The thinking skills are not seen as the highest priority since the workers become focused on the incentive programs. It is just an adult version of peer pressure and as sophisticated adults we learn to work the system and keep our own values and thoughts to ourselves. Over time this nature of intervention, encourages people to listen to only a part of themselves, and not to the whole of their values and intelligences.

Incentive cultures tend to produce homogenization of approaches and ends rather than development and expression of uniqueness. The role model is what we are to emulate, not the finding of an inner source of creativity which can be put forward and from which the whole can gain.

A society cannot sustain health when its citizenry limits itself to conserving the past, the habitual, the non-threatening, and to seeking self-gratification. A business cannot serve its stakeholders with a workforce who is waiting for the next set of incentives to be articulated or to experience failure and loss of spirit from an incentive program. Business leadership can lead in the development of a society and the success of a business by working to develop the full intelligence and critical thinking skills of its workforce by designing work systems that enable the higher values of uniqueness and contribution to be developed and expressed. Through this development and expression of higher ordering process, lower ordered values are satisfied. Organizations who move in this directions (e.g. Developmental Organizations) are not only incredibly successful as businesses, they are also the most exciting places on earth to work.

About Carol Sanford

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Carol Sanford is a regenerative business educator, the award winning author of The Regenerative Business: Redesign Work, Cultivate Human Potential, Achieve Extraordinary Outcomes, and executive in residence and senior fellow in social innovation at Babson College. She has worked with fortune 500 executives and rock star entrepreneurs for 40 years, helping them to innovate and grow their businesses by growing their people. Learn more about Carol and her work at her website.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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