Getting employee engagement right has always been a mixture of art and science.
There are numerous research studies, models and frameworks that are crucial to operationalizing engagement initiatives, but when dealing with the beautiful complexities of human nature, we can’t underestimate the importance of the nuanced artistic touches needed to make those initiatives really click.
With so much to get right, and with so much at stake, leaders would be well-served to utilize every tool available, and neuroscience may prove to be a valuable additional tool for you.
Neuroscience is a powerful tool
Neuroscience is defined as the scientific study of the nervous system, but it’s specifically the brain’s response to workplace interactions that holds great promise for leaders interested in improving company culture and increasing employee engagement levels. Beyond what you can observe as a leader, your staff have powerful functions in their brains that are continuously influencing their behavior and you need to be aware of how to make their brains comfortable.
Interestingly, this highly cognitive muscle often responds counter-intuitively to what we may expect, and gaining a better understanding of the brain’s function provides the opportunity to improve our workplace relationships and bring out the best in our employees.
Our brains are like forests—always growing and changing, and highly susceptible to their environment. Like trees, when we’re in supportive, nurturing environments we grow better and adapt to change more easily and much more effectively. This is especially important for leaders to understand because their success is dependent on their capacity to influence other people.
Neuroscience suggests the most effective things leaders can do to engage employees and increase their professional development is to reduce their perceived threats and to help them come to insights and conclusions on their own.
These recommendations are based on understanding the primal functions of the brain and the near impossible task of leaders being both coach and judge. Biologically, we are threatened by assessments of any kind, so even a well-liked manager will send our neurological threat meters into high gear when offering feedback or evaluating our performance.
Because threats stay with us far longer than rewards, neuroscience research encourages leaders not to create threats they don’t have to, and to be mindful about how everyday business interactions can be perceived as threatening. Dr. David Rock, a leading neuroscience researcher, has created a model called SCARF that I’ve adapted and offer as a good guide for leaders.
The SCARF model
Our brains process threats to our social status (when we face uncertainty or are being evaluated) as social pain. Social pain occurs in the same part of the brain as physical pain, so a social threat will be treated biologically just like a physical threat. When we feel social pain we don’t feel safe and are stressed. When confronted with social pain, we don’t perform well because our brains can’t focus on more than one thing at a time and we will continue to concentrate on the perceived threat until it dissipates.
Action Plan: As a leader, avoid creating social pain as much as possible. People tend to be their own worst critics until someone else criticizes them and creates a threat and social pain. Don’t give feedback unless you really have to – it makes things worse 59% of the time. Instead, encourage employees to give feedback and ask questions of themselves. For example, you might ask “Tell me some of the things you’re already thinking about to improve.” Good leaders facilitate insight in others, and this approach also has the advantage of creating sustained behavioral change in the brain.
Ambiguity is worse than a clear threat to employees’ brains, and uncertainty is downright terrible because it creates a feeling of danger. Our brains are hard-wired to constantly be on the outlook for threats, so they can easily revert to feeling threatened in the absence of repeated reminders and support that all is well.
Action Plan: Create crystal clear expectations for your team and continue to communicate with them. Help them to feel confident in their work, their future, and the organization itself. Be sure to establish and come back to goals frequently to keep staff focused when threats to Certainty arise.
We need to know we have choices and can control our own destiny, even when choices are slim or autonomy is limited. A lack of control over our work – and in making both significant and smaller decisions – creates stress and sends our brains into threat mode.
Action Plan: Don’t micromanage – offer your staff opportunities to make decisions and control their own work as much as possible.
We evaluate everyone as friend or foe; trustful or distrustful, and the same action will be viewed differently by our brain whether we view others as similar to us or not. When we can’t comfortably relate to another person we rarely give them the benefit of the doubt, and our brains don’t even process much of what they have to say.
Action Plan: It’s essential that you find commonalities with your teammates and create authentic relationships with them so their brains will relate to you as friend rather than foe and your messages will be received. Create a trusting, non-threatening environment and look for ways to include everyone, so your staff feels like a cohesive team and can relax and concentrate on their performance.
Fairness is intrinsically rewarding and non-threatening to our brain, and our brains are continuously monitoring for this factor. A lack of perceived fairness is highly emotionally charged because it packs the double punch of threatening our Status as well, and will bring out those threats in our brain too.
Action Plan: Be vigilant, open and obvious about treating all employees fairly and increase overall workplace transparency where ever you can. Immediately address those situations where you will have to treat people differently, or when employees may perceive a challenge to Fairness. Don’t let this linger with your team as they will be severely distracted until it’s resolved in their minds.
Leaders are responsible for the cultures and the workplace environments they create. Those cultures are dynamic and filled with complex, evolving organisms known as employees. To better engage our employees, we need to better understand them as people first – what excites and inspires them; what builds their confidence; and what causes them to be fearful or insecure.
I invite you to be a leader who sees both the ‘forest’ of the culture and the ‘trees’ of your employees, and knows how to nurture and bring out the best in both.
Named one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry, Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP, is a highly accomplished industry leader; international speaker, author, and strategist. A respected authority on leadership and employee engagement, she is past-president of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University, vice president of research for the Business Marketing Association, and president emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association, among many other prestigious board positions past and present. Michelle is vice-president of marketing for O.C. Tanner. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org .