Employee recognition, neuroscience and the power of storytelling

Employee recognition, neuroscience and the power of storytelling

New neuroscientific research indicates that employers should add persuasive communication techniques to their recognition war chest. But what does that look like? And how could you make it happen? This article explains all.

Why persuade?

Employee recognition schemes aim to bring staff behaviours in line with your business goals. This is usually achieved by communicating the expected conduct and outlining the potential reward. Which can range from a simple thank you for a job well done or a peer-to-peer ecard to shopping vouchers, cash payments or celebration dinners and awards ceremonies.

Businesses who provide financial rewards tend to spend around 1-2% of their payroll on their recognition scheme. Whatever your salary bill, this equates to a significant chunk of money - £100-£200k on a £10m payroll to be precise. Which means you want to ensure you get best return on investment.

The key to unlocking those gains is communication, as the latest scientific research shows.

What neuroscience has to tell us about communication

Advanced brain scanning techniques are fuelling an explosion in our understanding of how the brain works. In fact, we’ve discovered more in the last ten years than we’ve previously known.

Cognitive neuroscience professor Tali Sharot cites the amygdala - a small spot deep inside the frontal lobe - as the key to persuasion. It takes an emotional event to activate this region which sends an alert to the rest of your brain.

This interesting information was uncovered using functional MRI machines to scan the brains of a speaker and a group of listeners. The narrator was asked to tell a personal story about themselves as the scanners monitored the group’s blood flow to identify which parts of their brains were active.

Stories with a strong emotion - be that fear, anger, excitement, joy - triggered a blast of neurochemicals in the brains of both listeners and speaker.

But here’s the really interesting bit.

The research found that emotion activates the memory of an event. And that this emotion has the power to spread between people. The result? We all end up in sync.

Theory points to this being part of our species’ survival mechanism. By being able to sense fear in others, our neurological signalling system could save lives by alerting tribe members to danger.

But what does this mean for recognition?

Of course, our brains aren’t only wired to register fear and danger but a wide range of other emotions, like joy. By sharing pleasant experiences, we form closer connections which makes for better teamwork and performance. In ancient times, this meant survival. Today, enhanced teamwork can be used to drive improved performance.

Recognition works better when you share stories

This theory is backed up by some some research I read years ago by the Corporate Leadership Council. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the resources any more so I can’t find the reference. But their guidance said that presenting recognition awards in front of other employees has a ripple effect on performance.

By seeing what others are recognised for, the rest of the team is inspired to follow suit.

Given the latest neuroscientific research, this isn’t surprising. It tells us that how we communicate is as important as what we communicate.

A quick twenty-second presentation won’t cut the mustard or trip the amygdala. Instead, leaders need to create an emotional response to reap maximum reward.

How can you do this? With strong recognition scheme communications that include:

  • Presentations from the direct line manager of the individual who’s being recognised as they’re closer to the employee

  • Guidance that helps managers tell the story of an individual’s achievement - this will help them make that important emotional connection

  • Time and space to make a meaningful presentation in front of the rest of the team

  • A special event that builds expectation to celebrate the achievements of the most outstanding team members

A well-crafted recognition story that lets your whole team know what good behaviours look like, will ensure you tap into the emotional parts of their brains. Creating closer team bonds, delivering improved performance and a greater return on your recognition scheme investment.


For help communicating your recognition scheme effectively:

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