It’s a management maxim that bosses should dole out praise liberally when deserved, although many business environments seem more focused on punishing failure. It turns out there’s solid neuroscience behind the idea of recognizing success, according to research led by neuroscientist Earl Miller of MIT and published in Neuron.

[Miller and his team] have created for the first time a unique snapshot of the learning process that shows how single cells change their responses in real time as a result of information about what is the right action and what is the wrong one.

“We have shown that brain cells keep track of whether recent behaviors were successful or not,” Miller said. Furthermore, when a behavior was successful, cells became more finely tuned to what the animal was learning. After a failure, there was little or no change in the brain – nor was there any improvement in behavior.

The study sheds light on the neural mechanisms linking environmental feedback to neural plasticity – the brain’s ability to change in response to experience. [From MIT News – Why we learn more from our successes than our failures by Deborah Halber.]

The experiments used monkeys, who were given a simple task of looking at computer images and, by trial and error, learning which way they were supposed to look depending on the picture. Correct decisions were rewarded.

“If the monkey just got a correct answer, a signal lingered in its brain that said, ‘You did the right thing.’ Right after a correct answer, neurons processed information more sharply and effectively, and the monkey was more likely to get the next answer correct as well,” Miller said, “But after an error there was no improvement. In other words, only after successes, not failures, did brain processing and the monkeys’ behavior improve.”

There’s one catch – the time period for this enhanced feedback mechanism appears to be very short, mere seconds after the moment of success. So, praise or other rewards need to happen in real time to exploit this particular neural mechanism. Of course, feedback mechanisms may well be built into the work itself. A telemarketer, for example, will undoubtedly get a lift when a customer says, “Yes, I’ll buy.” That in itself would likely reinforce the behavior that led up to the sale. With much of today’s work occurring in front of a computer screen, technology can also be employed to recognize when a success event has occurred and providing immediate positive feedback.

Regardless, managers should ensure that they do provide both real-time and subsequent reinforcement of successful actions. In addition to the recent MIT research, there’s plenty of literature that shows that appropriately recognizing and rewarding employee success has a positive impact on the workplace.

(And, while punishing failure may be useless or counterproductive, there’s also evidence that constructively analyzing failure can create better decisions in the future – see Managing by Mistakes.)

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