The brain’s response to compliment and criticism


You presumably react better to a leader who appreciates you rather than criticizes you? Someone who is continually building you up and making you appear good is far more charming than someone repeatedly knocking you down.

But good leadership is more complicated than this. It is really about getting the best out of people. This may not be resolved simply by steady praise. There is a place for the correct kind of criticism – and the brain reveals why.

The brain’s response to compliment and criticism

Praise clearly makes most of us feel good, but have you noticed how many people react less vigorously to praise than they do to critiques?

Neuroscience confirms that the brain produces the neurochemical oxytocin when we are appreciated. This is carried from the hypothalamus, where it is produced, to the pituitary gland at the brain’s base, where it is discharged.

Oxytocin is sometimes called the ‘love hormone’ because it is connected with things that make us feel validated; high levels are often seen in couples during the first few months of their relationship, it is released during sex and plays a significant role in monitoring the childbirth and breastfeeding purposes.

Oxytocin helps us sense pleasure, but often in a quick, passing way.

When we are criticized, any insult or criticism can be sensed by the brain as a threat, creating an entirely distinct neuro-response that often lasts for a longer time in the memory.

A stress response promotes cortisol release, which is exhibited in the adrenal cortex, within the adrenal gland just above the kidneys. This results in visible physical changes in the body, as it readies itself for a ‘fight or flight’ response, narrowing the arteries and accelerating heart rate.

This intense physical reaction makes us remember the situation more clearly, and this demonstrates why we often remember sad events more clearly than good ones.

How can we implement this in the office?

Firstly, you must know that criticism can generate negative but deeply carved responses. At the same time, praise tends to lead to positive, but less deeply carved responses. This may be something that young leaders want to bear in mind.

As a leader, you should balance praise with constructive criticism. Not playing the finger-pointing and blame game, which will induce a stress response, but consistently highlighting where the employees can make improvements. Feedback should not merely wash over our employees, going ‘in one ear and out the other’. For it to stick and be acted upon positively, it needs to be more deeply experienced- thus, constructive criticism comes into the picture.

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