Spark up some dope!

Using dopamine to excite, engage and empower….

Swooning over his big blue eyes, his wispy blond hair and his cuffed jeans, I held his gaze as I handed him a drink. But, I knew his interest in me would wane, because after all, Cam was only 2 years old and our cottage was a snore for a toddler on a rainy day. 
 I scrounged up a set of dominoes to “wow” my little guest with the domino effect but instead of a chain reaction, the pieces collapsed all over the place. Cam was visibly underwhelmed but thankfully was eager to put the pieces back in their box like a puzzle.

One by one he manipulated the glossy rectangles into place until he was left with 3 that wouldn’t fit.
 Cam was stuck and his mom had left the room so he leaned over to me and whispered: “howp pwease” (be still my heart)

Desperate for his affection, I was tempted to arrange the pieces for him, but instead, I prodded him to figure it out for himself; with tongue hanging out, his breath heavy in concentration, his chubby little hands went to work at twisting and turning. 
 Then, after reassembling a few times, it happened: all of the pieces clicked into place!!

He jumped up and down in jubilation, “high-fiving” me with a smile that lit up the room; it was as if he had just been given an ice cream cone.

Young Cam was having an “a ha” moment: that familiar sensation we get when we solve our own problems.
 In his ground-breaking book
“Quiet Leadership”, David Rock explains that this “eureka” human sensation is bio-chemical: when our brains release a neurotransmitter called Dopamine.

Left unchecked, this dopamine rush is so addictive it can cause gamblers to go into debt, gamers to live in online fantasy worlds, turns humans into wolves on wall street and makes us check our phones for likes incessantly.
 Essentially, neurotransmitters are our internal reward system, motivating us to keep the human race going by
rewarding actions that support our survival like eating, sex (being liked) and making money.

Being internally motivated is powerful. Getting others to do what they naturally want to do is such a breeze to teach, coach, and parent. But, as people, we vary on what gets us excited and why we rely on external rewards to fill in for motivation gaps. 
Borrowing from Behavioural/Motivation Psychology and pain and pleasure principles we use a variety of rewards, especially at the workplace: managers give bonuses to sharpen focus on goals, reward strong performance with promotions and dole out recognition for the right behaviour. 
 We do the same in educational settings and at home. As a parent, I confess to potty training one of my kids with money and we may or may not have used “puppy points” towards chores and recall using chocolate chip pancakes to get one of them out of bed in the mornings for school (yes, I’m well aware of the sugar content, please don’t judge). 
 But we, parents, educators and leaders know that external rewards are effective for some behaviour but it’s short lived and can be dangerous when external rewards are expected for what should be intrinsic pleasures like learning, creativity, reading etc… (hmmmmm…. IS he getting up at university without pancakes?) 
This is why, the research in the last decade on our naturally occurring internal reward system has been so fascinating. 
 The recent Biochemical and NeuroPsychology field has begun to crack open the elusive intrinsic motivation puzzle or at least as it relates to how our neurotransmitters influences our behaviour. Out of this research has sprung what’s called
NeuroLeadership and the game changing neuro-coaching methods on how we can channel the power of dopamine to improve engagement, initiative, decision making and empowerment at the workplace. 
 One type of “NeuroCoaching” works like this…

Quite simply, it’s coaxing, nudging others with probing and reflective questions to help others think about their problems, not fix it for them. 
 Not only does this method of leadership produce
“aha moments” (even validated by PET and MRI scans) but it creates an urge for more of them (like addictive gaming), so thinking and problem solving evolves.
 Even better is when the solution is their idea, people act out of commitment and passion to ensure successful execution and results instead out of empty obligation, duty and compliance to someone else’s idea. 
 This Coaching method works for parents too….
 True story: a client was “fed up” of trying to get her son off the couch to find a summer job. She tried everything right down to threatening to take his phone. She applied a neurocoaching dialogue and within a week he went out and landed a job with a Landscaping company.

At first she said things like:

  • “This is what you need to do: 1) get your resume done tonight, then 2) tomorrow call this person 3) write a cover letter …….” (Giving directions)


  • “Here, look at this list of jobs I downloaded for you, also, I spoke to so and so and all you have to do is call him….” (Doing all of the work)


  • “When I was your age this is how I found a job, or if I were you this is what I’d do …..”
     (Seeing the problem through HER lens)

Then, she tried questions like:

  • “What are you going to like most about having a summer job? Why?
  • “What types of jobs do you think you’d like? Why? What other ones have youthought about?
  • What haven’t you thought about yet?

What shocked her most about her son was not that he found a job but that he actually wanted to find a physically challenging job outside and once he took over his own search he moved at lightening speed.

“ If you want to grow people, they need to come their own insights…” 
 David Rock

BUT, NeuroCoaching isn’t as easy as it looks,…
 Refraining from advising someone on what to do when they are struggling with a problem is tough. We want to quickly jump in to help them especially since many of us are in helping professions; trained and paid to provide answers, not questions.
 Further, in our busy lives, it’s not easy allowing “space” to cultivate better thinking in others when we barely have time to think for ourselves. 
 Finally, and this was an “A HA” moment for me: we, as parents and leaders get a release of dopamine when we solve other people’s problems.
 So when we dictate, control agendas, do all of the talking, helicopter and snow plow issues for our kids, make all of the decisions, reduce jobs to tasks that require no thought…..our behaviour might be more about grabbing dopamine for ourselves than it is about helping others.
 NeuroCoaching makes us shift problem solving onto others; because when we take it away from others, to make things easier or faster, we risk taking away one of the best parts to being human. Our brains need and want to figure things out and it just so happens that our world needs a variety of problem solving right now. 
We don’t need students who can memorize, automation is making that skill obsolete. Nor do we need employees who can calculate and follow directions well; we have algorithms and automation for that too. Nor do we need kids whose minds have already been shaped by the previous generation (us). 
 No, what our world needs now are students, kids and employees who know how to think creatively and who are courageous and excited enough to share their minds to rescue our globe. 
 For that to happen, we might need to transform the way we influence; instead of measuring our success on what we think should be learnt, or what we think should be done, perhaps we should measure ourselves on how many ice cream moments we’ve created.