In my home city of Edinburgh, we have the friendliest, most helpful bus drivers I have experienced. This is pretty important in a city that is always full of visitors and tourists. It wasn’t always the case though. So what changed to make our drivers so great?
Well I have a theory. Some years ago we had double-door buses; you got on at the front and got off at the middle. Then the buses changed to single-door and something remarkable happened. Because passengers now alight at the door next to the drivers cab, they began to say “Thank you driver” as they left the bus. Pretty much everyone does it now; even visitors.
My theory is that this show of gratitude has transformed the experience of being a bus driver; they feel more valued and appreciated. As a result, they are motivated to perform to a higher standard.
There is neuroscience to back this up.
When we show appreciation for someone, their brain releases dopamine. This chemical creates a positive emotional state that promotes optimism, relatedness and intrinsic motivation. The brain is in a low-threat state; the optimum state for quality thinking.
When we focus on positive feedback, the brain releases serotonin. This stimulates our mood, willpower and motivation.
High levels of these chemicals bring us to the optimum state for learning and performance. Sustained levels strengthen the neural pathways the learning creates. We are more likely to focus on positives and therefore self-fuel our positive state.
In an environment where the focus is always on problems, failure, blame and criticism, the brain’s threat-circuits are activated. Our system becomes adrenalin-fuelled. In small doses, Adrenalin supports effective brain function. However at high levels it fuels our “fight or flight” response; depriving our higher order thinking and problem solving resources of the oxygen that makes them effective.
I am often asked by managers “Why should I thank someone for just doing their job?”
Because you are setting them up to do an even better one.
This is not about being a “Polly-Anna”; we do need to face up to challenges and difficulties. But if we create a positive environment where people feel valued and appreciated, we prime their brains to do a great job on the problems.
It is so easy to change your team culture to be more positive and fuel the collective brains to higher motivation and contribution. Here are some examples from my work with leaders;
Sheila has a Monday morning team meeting. After the normal “how was your weekend?” banter, the team would share the challenges and problems for the week ahead. By 0930, everyone’s heads would be down and the mood low; already anticipating a stressful week and possible failure.
Sheila decided she needed to change how she ran the meeting; to set the team up for success.
Now, the meeting starts with a sharing of the successes of the previous week. What went well? What can we be proud of? What problems did we solve? What has moved forward? Once all the positives are explored the team’s brains are primed to tackle the issues.
A small change to a meeting has resulted in higher energy and performance, as well as a more engaging team culture.
Jo’s team is focused on delivering a major technology change programme. They work at pace and there is little team-time. Jo is concerned that the constant pressure is affecting team performance after some avoidable mistakes.
Once a month, the team comes together for a programme review. Jo decides to end their meeting with appreciation for each other. Each team member puts on the table a sheet of paper with their name on. All team members move around the papers and write one thing they have appreciated or valued about their colleague that month.
This simple act of appreciation lifts the mood and everyone leaves the room feeling supported and more resilient to cope with the pressures ahead.
Saying “Thank you” is often a private moment and often that is appropriate. However, to create a positive culture using appreciation requires awareness and making it a norm. Two of my client companies have taken steps to do just that.
One has painted walls with whiteboard paint, so that people can “graffiti” messages of thanks and recognition to colleagues and other teams.
Another has a stock of “Nice One” cards. Anyone can take a card and write a note to a colleague or team congratulating them on a success. When you walk through their office, you see them on people’s desks. Colleagues, of course, ask what the card is for and that spreads the successes further.
Many managers only give praise and recognition for delivery of results and negative feedback for mistakes and failures. This creates a fixed-mindset. Research shows that fixed-mindset drives people to cheat, hide mistakes and blame others rather than take responsibility. Fixed-mindset also inhibits learning and innovation because we are playing not to fail, rather than playing to win.
If you want people to play to win, you need to foster a growth-mindset.
Alan has done this in his team. In team reviews and his 1:1s, Alan explores what’s going well, as well as coaching around the reasons for, and learning from mistakes and failures. But he does something else too. Alan gives positive recognition for the effort, creativity, collaboration and learning – even when the goal has not been quite achieved.
So, some very small changes, based on an understanding of the way the brain reacts to threat and reward, can transform your impact as a leader. Why would you not say “Thank you”?
I say a big "Thank you" to Dr David Rock and colleagues at the Neuroleadership Institute for advancing our understanding of the neuroscience of motivation, learning and performance. Also to Dr Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, for her research into fixed and growth mindset.
I thought I'd share this short video;"Everybody Matters" by Bob Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller https://youtu.be/6wR7fLOK_MM
Bob simply echoes my belief that the job of leaders is to create human spaces; organisations that enable us to share and grow our talents, where we are appreciated and valued adn know that we matter. But he goes further, by demonstrating that when we do that, we affect the lives and wellbeing of both our employees and their families and communities.
My thanks to Rachel Smith, Global HR Talent Director at Alexander Dennis for sharing this with me.