Threat or Reward – the over-arching organising principle of the brain

Kate Mathers, IECL’s Principal Mindfulness Trainer returns, delving into how our brains perceive ‘threat or reward’ – including insights for how leaders can produce a ‘reward’ response in their people.


One of the fundamental ways in which our brain is ‘wired’ is that we move away from threats and towards reward. The brain is always searching and seeking safety. It scans for threat every fifth of a second, below our conscious awareness. We make decisions continuously about our circumstances out of conscious awareness – and it is this modus operandi that drives behaviour.

A ‘threat’ doesn’t have to be someone about to punch you, and a ‘reward’ doesn’t have to be a bonus. We could equally use the words ‘avoid’ and ‘approach’ to distinguish between the things that make us feel uncomfortable or comfortable.

Why leaders should understand the neuroscience behind ‘threat or reward’

As a leader, it is essential to understand how easily a threat response can be generated by you in those who report to you – it is as subtle as the difference between making someone feel comfortable or uncomfortable. Knowing and understanding the neuroscience around this simple fact can be life-changing for leaders.

Neuroscience has found that:

  • Just saying “let me give you some feedback” creates a threat response in someone’s brain, and especially in a culture with a fixed mindset.
  • The word ‘change’ can also easily generate a threat response in the brain, as the brain tends to create a feeling of discomfort when it is faced with something new.
  • When leaders learn about the ‘threat or reward’ system in the brain, and apply it to their own situation, very often a ‘light bulb’ comes on. This insight enables them to formulate new strategies to overcome unconscious responses, and do what will be best for the organisation and for their career.

Sometimes it’s enough just to understand the science and why we’ve been responding in a particular way. It’s crucial for a leader to understand when the threat response might be triggered and how it could be avoided or minimised, and when and how a sense of reward can be created.

Why leaders should be aware of ‘threat or reward’

Neuroscience shows that things like certainty and safety, autonomy and having options, reputation (how we perceive others think of us) and self-esteem, fairness and trust, are all associated with brain areas that produce strong reactions, in terms of generating a threat or reward response. Leaders need to remember these key areas particularly in managing areas like change, performance-based conversations, learning, and communications.

Leaders need to be able to:

  • Discuss, say, the performance over the last quarter, by providing perspectives on that performance from a growth mindset, specifically identifying where that person can develop and grow, hence eliciting a reward response.
  • Remember that presence is essential in a performance-based conversation from a growth mindset – otherwise team members will not feel the care and trust which is essential to the reward response of the brain.
  • Presence is also essential at the client/customer interface – a client/customer can detect (via the threat detector of the brain operating every fifth of a second) instantly if you’re not really present for the interaction. This immediately puts them into threat which is an uncomfortable place to be and they will be frustrated and dissatisfied at best, angry, upset and let down at worst.

Why you don’t want to generate a threat response in your people

The brain already has a bias towards negativity. This reaction happens automatically and instantaneously, before we have a chance to consider it rationally. There are five times as many threat circuits as reward circuits so the brain is very easily tipped into threat mode.

We don’t want to generate a threat response in our people because:

  • A perceived threat to a person’s sense of fairness, safety, security, reputation or trust activates exactly the same brain circuits as a threat to a person’s life.
  • Social pain such as this activates the same pain circuits in the brain as physical pain.
  • In threat mode, the brain instantly activates its emotional, limbic system – out of conscious awareness – and signals ‘AVOID’ AVOID’ ‘AVOID’!
  • There is no longer access to the higher rational part of the brain, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) – often known as the CEO of the brain, as it’s the part that’s responsible for higher-level thinking skills like analysing, judging, planning, rationalising, assessing, differentiating etc.
  • There is lower productivity as a result of that part of the brain shutting down, and the brain is no longer integrated.
  • Employees’ brains are much more easily distracted in this mode, have narrow focus, less attentional ability, and rely on old habits.
  • Decisions become more automatic and inflexible, and there is less inclination to collaborate.
  • People have more negative responses in threat mode.
  • The brain is already under stress anyway simply from the complexities and demands and pressures of the 21st century workplace and 24/7 connectivity, so leaders should avoid piling more stress on top.
  • In threat mode, the only thing the brain wants is a solution and safety.
  • The threat mode reduces creativity, problem-solving ability and social connection.
  • The threat response is mentally taxing, causing mental fatigue, and is deadly to the productivity of an organisation.

Why leaders should generate a ‘reward’ response

Once we understand how the brain works, as leaders we can take more care not to elicit or prompt a ‘threat’ response in our people either by our words or by our behaviour or actions. A perceived increase to a person’s reputation activates the same neural circuitry in the brain as receiving a monetary reward. We can get along with others more effectively and lead better if we understand how to elicit reward reactions in the people we lead.

We want to generate a ‘reward’ response in our people because:

  • The reward system is highly motivating and prompts the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which encourages our brain to work at optimal levels.
  • Greater happiness and more positive emotion happens in your people as a result of a reward-oriented growth mindset.
  • The human brain is a highly social organ and we want to maximise this for benefit rather than detriment.
  • People seeing themselves as learning and improving and getting better provides intrinsic ‘reward’ in the brain.
  • The reward response is helpful when acknowledging performance delivered without criticising performance – rather ‘how can we grow your development in that area?’ will prompt reward rather than threat response.
  • We are less at the mercy of our unconscious reactions, as we can choose to engage the ‘CEO of the brain’, the rational, goal-setting system of the brain which allows us to work with maximum productivity and engagement.


However good a reward policy is in an organisation, leaders will not generate a ‘reward’ response in team members if the distribution of the reward is perceived as inequitable and unfair – an area that generates a strong response in the brain in terms of ‘threat or reward’. Inequitable distribution of reward actually creates a threat response and undermines the pleasure, motivation and productivity such a reward may have been intended to engender.

Growth mindset is one of the concepts we work with when developing our leadership development programs.
Kate Mathers is IECL’s Principal Mindfulness Trainer, the Director of Balance-Life Mindfulness Training, AND IS ALSO THE co-founder of MindDEP Leadership Performance Training. She has a wide range of experience facilitating growth and change in the personal and business lives of a broad range of clientele over more than a decade, both through her organisations Balance-Life and MindDEP, and in conjunction with IECL.