Improving Employee Recognition Programs with Neuroscience

Neuroscience has proven that recognition is the best way to retain and motivate employees. That’s why learning the science behind it is considered essential knowledge for implementing a successful employee recognition program.

December 30, 2021 By Martin Angjelkoski Share on Twitter! Share on Facebook! Share on LinkedIn!
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Since observation is most important in science, have you ever noticed that a single bite of a cookie, or a reassuring tap on the shoulder, can alleviate emotional stress, induce positive feelings, or even reduce pain?

If you think about it from a biological point of view, a hamburger should have a higher effect since it has a much larger nutritional value, giving the body a higher quantity of reward and survival chances.

However, it doesn’t, and in this blog post, we are going to talk about the science behind how humans throughout their evolution have developed abstract social reward systems, as part of the unending efforts to navigate our complex social structures.

We are going to start with the basics of what reward / social reward systems are, the neuroscience behind them, and how they are crucial to the health of any workplace and organization.

What Is The Reward System?

The brain’s reward system is the collection of brain structures that seem to play a role in producing pleasurable feelings. The main components are the ventral tegmental area and the nucleus accumbens.

These structures have been shown to act as a learning system, altering neural responses based on past experiences and influencing decision-making processes and ultimately our behavior.

With survival being the primary goal, evolution had to find a way of controlling behavior in a way that makes sure the continued existence of any species.

These predetermined behaviors are considered one of the most important aspects of any species’ efforts of navigating and surviving the environments it lives in.

The mechanisms written in the genetic code of all species predate human evolution for millions of years, giving us a chance to understand ourselves better by observing other animals that are on the lower branches of planet earth’s tree of life.

How Does It Work?

To understand how these components work, consider an experiment where rats learn to press a lever to receive a food reward. Rats will quickly learn to do this, but if they press the lever and receive a painful electric shock instead of food, they will also quickly learn to stop pressing the lever.

This type of learning is called operant conditioning and it’s basically how all animals (and people) learn new behaviors; through positive reinforcement (rewarding behaviors) or negative reinforcement (punishing behaviors).

Being wired like this allows for effective learning and adaptability, giving both animals and humans the will to seek rewards, repeat them, optimize them, until they become a reflex.

This is important, as once a rewarding behavior is reinforced, the organism’s effort and energy can be focused on seeking new challenges and getting new pleasures.

On top of that, many animals including humans have developed social survival skills, meaning their survival is dependent on cooperation with other members of their species.

And to make this possible, evolution being the ultimate designer and engineer has developed the social reward system, a feature that defines the behavior, motivation, and emotional state in humans’ everyday life, which is largely spent in the workplace.

What Are Social Rewards?

The science behind social rewards systems in humans is not well understood. However, what is known is that dopamine plays a large role in the brain’s reward system, as well as its effect on our behavior, making it one of the most important neurotransmitters released by neurons used to send signals to other nerve cells while helping to regulate movement, emotion, motivation, and feelings of pleasure.

For example, when someone performs an action that helps the survival of their species—like sharing food or protecting close ones—the brain releases dopamine to reinforce and reward the behavior. This evolutionary mechanism was necessary to ensure our survival as a species and has helped us build complex societies.

This is why social rewards are the driving forces behind most of our actions. From things like chasing higher community status by sharing content on social media to over-performing at work, are all part of the effort of seeking social recognition that provides us with a sense of accomplishment, belonging, and safety.

The question is how can we use social rewards in the workplace? Employee engagement is important for both employee happiness and company success. An increasing number of companies are working towards incorporating social rewards into their work environment by offering employees bonuses, employee recognition programs, or even just giving away free pizzas once a month.

However, before we go into the effects of social rewards and recognition in the workplace, let’s dive deep into the neuroscience behind all of these mechanisms.

Social Reward Systems In The Human Brain

The human social reward system is an essential aspect of our behavior. It is a complex network of neural structures and neurotransmitters that control and regulate the physiological process.

This complex social system is largely operated by three brain structures: the basal ganglia, ventral tegmental area, and the nucleus accumbens, which is considered to be the most essential part.

These brain structures are part of the limbic system, which plays an important role in three primary components of resulting behavior: motivation, pleasure-seeking, and reinforcement learning.

In general terms:

Motivation is a state that causes an organism to behave in a certain way.
Pleasure seeking refers to the search for pleasures or rewards from different sources such as food or sex.
Reinforcement learning refers to the process by which certain behaviors are strengthened or weakened when followed by positive or negative consequences respectively.

Expanding On The Limbic System

Structures in the limbic system like the amygdala and hippocampus are also associated with fear and anxiety regulation, making the limbic system in charge of the full spectrum of emotional states

This is important since the same part of the brain that makes us feel good when we accomplish or get recognition for something can also induce negative feelings that directly affect motivation and productivity.

For example, the expectation of reward can motivate positive behavior and can result in employees getting their work done faster with higher quality. However, if in the end, the reward does not meet the pre-set expectation, then a feeling of disappointment appears, followed by a lack of motivation to do the same thing again. 

This makes employee recognition in the workspace not a recommendation, but a must if the organization aims at having at least average employee effectiveness.

The Role Of Dopamine

We established that our brains are hardwired to respond to the things that make us feel good. When we get a promotion, win a competition, or even receive a compliment from our boss, the ventral tegmental area (VTA) secretes dopamine, our favorite neurotransmitter that is associated with pleasure and reward. The thing that makes us feel good when we do something right.

But here’s the thing: dopamine isn’t just released when we do something right. It’s also released before or as we start the right activity. That is a way the evolution found to motivate us to seek hard to get pleasures. 

For example, you might have heard of the “Ikea effect”, which is the phenomenon where people value a product more once they’ve put in the effort to build it.

The Ikea effect is caused by dopamine, which makes us feel good when we put in the effort to do something.

So if you have a project that’s hard to finish, but easy to start, you’re likely to get more dopamine when you start it than when you finish it.

However, if the project gets prolonged and there is no reward in sight, dopamine levels drop, leading to an exponential reduction in motivation and focus.

Importance Of Regular Intervals On Rewards/Dopamine

To keep the employee motivated, injections of dopamine need to be given on smaller stages, as a way to keep the feeling of accomplishment active, allowing for better focus and higher problem-solving skills in the prefrontal cortex.

Meaning, rewards and social recognition for employees need to be applied continuously, especially since the social reward system is also an important part of the brain for learning and memory processes.

For instance, it modulates the strength of associations between stimuli and responses, helping to maintain a particular behavioral response when it becomes associated with a stimulus that elicits reward.

This can be seen through studies in which rats learned to press a lever to receive rewards such as food or water. After some time, the rats began to press the lever without any reward because they learned that it triggered a response. This form of associative learning and memory is also an example of operant conditioning.

I hope that now you have an idea of how our brains are wired to act according to the stimuli it gets, so we can continue talking more about how this knowledge can be used to improve the social recognition of employees.

Social Reward Systems In The Workplace

Reward system in the workplace is important for management to understand as it helps them understand employee behaviors in different circumstances like when they are rewarded after doing something good at work. For example, if employees get good benefits like health insurance, they are more likely to recognize employers’ wellbeing efforts and feel a stronger connection to the workplace. At the same time, getting rewarded on an individual basis for getting the job well done makes a connection of perks to personal accomplishments, motivating an employee to do their best.

Workplace satisfaction is important to many people, and most people want to feel appreciated by their employers. While every person is unique in the way they perceive social recognition, certain neurological processes make it easier for them to connect with their work. These processes include making the connection between their identity, accomplishments, or skills and the recognition they receive.

The reason this connection is so important is that it can create a sense of belonging within the organization. When an employee feels as though they have a sense of belonging, it helps them feel more satisfied with their career path, giving them motivation and focus to do a better job.

The human mind is an extremely complex and fascinating thing. Our brains are naturally wired to seek out rewards, and since companies are in some way a network of brains, social recognition is a reward that can be extremely beneficial to them in the long run as they create a stronger connection with employees and improve productivity.

Implementing The Right Program According to Neuroscience

Today, more companies are implementing formal, but more fun, social recognition programs in which employees can nominate, be nominated, recognize and reward each other using a point system and gamification.  

When implementing an employee recognition program, it is important to consider the processes behind the program.

How many points are awarded for each achievement? How do you determine what achievements are worth more than others? What criteria should be used to determine the winners? How will you recognize and reward the winners? What types of rewards are appropriate for your company culture?

Most promising formal recognition programs are based on the achievement of certain milestones. When an employee reaches a milestone, they are awarded points. 

The number of points awarded depends on the type of milestone achieved. For example, if an employee reaches a certain sales goal, they are awarded 50 points. 

If an employee is recognized for going above and beyond their job description, they are awarded 100 points. Once an employee has reached 500 points, they are eligible to receive a cash bonus.

Other formal recognition programs are based on the achievement of quarterly goals. When an employee reaches a quarterly goal, they are awarded points. 

The number of points awarded depends on the type of goal achieved. For example, if an employee meets their sales goal, they are awarded 10 points. If an employee meets their quarterly goal, they are awarded 20 points.

At the end of the year, employees can redeem their points for prizes. The prizes may include gift cards or even a trip to a resort.

What matters here, according to neuroscience is making a connection between good behavior or job well done and the actual reward. That allows for employees to look forward to getting the job well done as soon as the work starts, highly improving the motivation and efficiency. The added bonus is that proper recognition system also helps them understand the value they bring to the company, and see the employers appreciation for their work. 

Types Of Social Recognition

This is why social recognition for employees is one of the most important factors for retaining talent. It can be a gift, time off, or a public short speech by the management about the employee’s good performance.

There are different types of social rewards that act as employee recognition in the workplace. They include:

  1. Public Employee recognition and praise by the manager or CEO.
  2. Time off.
  3. Recognition items like plaques, certificates, etc.
  4. Monetary reward or bonus.
  5. Personal gifts.
  6. The employee of the month or year awards.

All of these, if applied correctly with a value of reward proportional to the accomplishment, activate the previously talked brain circuits and get the dopamine flowing, reinforcing the productive behavior.


Choosing The Right Social Reward

Public recognition or time off reward can be more effective than monetary one in some cases.

Some rewards like this can be a very powerful tool to encourage your employees to perform better and get better results.

To apply this technique, you need to set a goal and define the steps that will lead to its accomplishment.

Then, identify the behaviors that will be rewarded for each step. Once you have identified them, you can give your employees incentives that will reward them for their work.

However, never forget the most important lesson, that employee recognition must be reinforced regularly, as it can have negative effects when employees overperform and expect a reward but are disappointed in not finding one on the finish. 

I hope this gave you the necessary knowledge and understanding of the neuroscience and dynamics behind our social reward systems, and how they affect the productivity and health of employees, employers, and companies in general.

Get in touch with our team and get expert help in choosing the right social recognition programs for your organization and your teams.