NeuroEngagement: Using Insights from Brain Science to Heighten Employee Engagement

Employee engagement is all the rage these days. It’s commonly touted as the key to transforming an organization from good to great.

When a new organizational effectiveness ‘truth’ comes along there are two common responses.

The first response is an unreflective jump on to the bandwagon. Managers keen to improve their own and their organization’s performance will often take on faith the validity of the novel approach – only to be disappointed when it doesn’t bear the fruit it promised.

The second response is an unreflective dismissal of the new approach as more “soft-skill psychobabble.” This is understandable, given the number of management fads that turn out to be more hype than help.

So, how should a manager respond to the call to focus on increasing the level of employee engagement in their organization or team? Is this another flash-in-the-pan concept designed to make consultants rich? Or is this a critical strategy for increasing profit and productivity that has substance?

According to the findings of such research firms as Towers Watson, Blessing White, Gallup, and Sirota Survey Intelligence, companies with high levels of employee engagement outperform other organizations in regards to:

  • creativity and innovation,
  • retention,
  • customer focus,
  • employee productivity,
  • customer satisfaction, and
  • profitability.

Different research organizations classify their findings in different ways. David Sirota’s formulation is a simple and useful model. His research suggests that there are three factors that, together, create strong engagement: the employee’s sense of (1) fair treatment, (2) achievement, and (3) camaraderie.[i]

Neuroscience has been making remarkable progress in helping us understand the workings of our mind and illuminating central truths about human nature. In some cases, the findings confirm the validity of existing leadership and organizational practices; in other cases it is turning them upside down. In this case, it confirms that Sirota’s three factors are real, universal, and fundamental in fostering a strong level of engagement in employees.

So, let’s take a look at these three factors through a neuroscience lens.

Fairness

Fairness refers to the employee’s sense of being treated with respect. It includes such things as feeling compensated equitably for one’s labours, having adequate job security, and being treated with dignity. Fairness is embodied both in the organization’s overall policies and practices, and in manner in which the employee’s boss treats him/her.

Brain science has offered some remarkable insights into how fundamental a need fairness is for humans.

One example comes via the Ultimatum Game. This activity is used to demonstrate the fact that feeling treated unfairly overrules acting in what is rationally a person’s own best interests. In the Ultimatum Game, there are two players. One player is given a certain amount of money. The person with the money must decide how much of it to offer the other individual, knowing that if the other player accepts the offer, they will both keep the amount of money each now has, but if the other person rejects the offer, neither player receives anything.

If you were playing, and the amount of money the other player had been given was $10, what would be the minimum amount you would accept? Rationally, you ought to accept any amount, since you would still be walking away with more money than you had prior to the game.

But that’s not how it works.

On average, using the $10 example, the receiver will decline the offer if they are offered less than $3. It’s as if they want to punish the other person for treating them unfairly, even when it makes no rational sense: “If you are going to disrespect me with your offer, I’ll make sure you don’t get anything.”

Feeling treated unfairly is a powerful emotion.

What brain research has demonstrated is that there is a specific area of the brain that processes “fairness issues”.  A 2008 study at the California Institute of Technology pinpointed the insular cortex, a region of the brain that is the seat of emotional responses, as the location where issues concerning equity are processed. Steven Quartz, an Associate Professor and one of the authors of the study, notes, “The fact that the brain has such a robust response to unfairness suggests that sensing unfairness is a basic evolved capacity.”[i]

Feeling treated fairly is not sufficient for an employee to feel highly engaged, but it is foundational. Feeling treated unfairly destroys a person’s emotional connection to their organization and/or manager. It may even lead to “punishing” behaviours as their “emotional brain” takes over.

You may as well accept this and use it to your advantage.

A sense of fairness is the foundation of employee engagement. It’s a brain thing.

Achievement

George Costanza, of Seinfeld fame, may have plotted and schemed to finds ways to avoid doing any work while still claiming a pay check, but he is definitely the exception, not the norm.

Most individuals want to do work they are proud of. They want to achieve something worthwhile through their time and effort. And they want to know that others, especially their bosses, recognize their contributions.

Many of us know this instinctively. Brain science is confirming that a sense of achievement is a crucial component of an individual’s ongoing motivation. In this article, I will highlight just one of the ways brain science demonstrates this, namely, the way that dopamine affects someone’s ongoing motivation to achieve.

Dopamine is one of the primary chemicals that our brains produce that impacts positively upon our mood. It is central to the brain network that governs motivation and a sense of reward and pleasure.[iii]

Creating environments and conditions for our employees such that their brains regularly release dopamine at work is thus a key element for ongoing employee engagement.

This has three implications for managers.

The first of these is that the work employees are doing must involve tasks in which they are naturally interested. Dopamine is released when a person anticipates achieving a goal. If they have little or no interest in their assigned tasks, there will be little anticipation of achieving specific goals. So, managers need to be in conversation with their staff and get to know them well enough to know what kinds of tasks, projects, and assignments are of natural interest to them.

The second implication is that employees need to be able to see clearly what they have achieved and understand how these achievements contribute to the team, department, or organization accomplishing its goals. When a person knows that what they are doing truly matters, they are more likely to want to do their part, creating the environment for dopamine release. This sets up a virtuous cycle of intrinsic motivation and ongoing engagement.

The third implication concerns the relationship between dopamine (and in this case serotonin – another “feel good” neurochemical) and social status – the degree of honor or prestige attached to someone’s position in the group.

Studies of primate communities (primate is the “order” of which we humans are one species) reveal that higher status members have increased levels of dopamine and serotonin, both of which increase positive mood.[iv] Research also demonstrates that humans are highly sensitive to their perceived status within the group. We are are keenly alert to anything that might lower our social status and motivated by those things that increase it.

This suggests that managers must be very careful when giving feedback to an employee not to do so in a manner that lowers the individual’s sense of their status (in other words, avoid judgmental language and focusing on the employees mistakes; focus instead on the employee’s development). It also suggests that actions taken by a manager that increase the employee’s sense of status will tap into his/her neural reward system, boosting their positive mood and increasing their engagement. Thus, genuine praise, recognition, and reward are important tools for a manager to use with employees.

To summarize, the powerful impact that activating the brain’s dopamine-driven reward system has on an employee’s motivation is just one way that neuroscience is confirming the importance of a sense of achievement for ongoing high levels of engagement.

The importance of achievement in creating high levels of engagement is central. It’s a brain thing.

Camaraderie

The third component of Sirota’s employee engagement framework concerns camaraderie – the sense of belonging to a group that is characterized by warm, cooperative relationships.

Humans are social animals.

Even convicted gangsters dread the thought of being locked in solitary confinement. It is one of the most painful punishments that can be administered.

We flourish when connected meaningfully with others and flounder when we aren’t. Why is that?

The story of our species’ evolution provides the answer.

In the distant past when our ancestors lived in hunter-gatherer tribes, cooperation between members of a tribe provided a strategic advantage for survival. The development of our cognitive capacities thus took place within the context of living in tribal societies. Humans have evolved to be a highly social species. Our brains reveal this history in numerous ways – many of which have a direct impact on the conditions that create and sustain strong engagement.

One of the more fascinating recent discoveries is the fact that physical pain and social pain (the pain we experience when relationships are threatened, broken or ended) share the same neural alarm system.[v] This system is designed to detect the presence or possibility of physical or social harm and to focus one’s attention on fixing it when something has gone wrong. The fact that evolution utilized the brain’s pre-existent physical pain network to sound the alarm when social relationships are damaged underscores how important relationships were for our survival.

Thus it is literally true that social connection is a fundamental human need. When isolated, rejected, or betrayed we feel significant pain. And so we speak of broken hearts, hurt feelings, wounded souls, and crushed emotions.

Turning to the positive side of relationships, researchers have discovered that when people relate to each other with warmth and trust, our brains release a hormone called oxytocin. This neurochemical lowers anxiety and stress and increases one’s sense of identification with one’s group.[vi]

That nature has equipped us with a hormone that promotes close relationships and identification with the group indicates that managers would do well to foster open, trust-based relationships between themselves and their direct reports and within their team as a whole.

It feels wretched to be dismissed, distrusted, or disliked by those with whom we work. Conversely, it feels good to be part of a team that experiences camaraderie. And when people feel good about their work relationships, when they identify with a group, they contribute wholeheartedly to that group’s success. And that’s good for business.

We’re wired for camaraderie. It’s a brain thing.

Conclusion

Many business leaders are not as comfortable with the “softer” side of management, the people side. But brain science reveals that leaders ignore these elements at their own perils, because the soft stuff is actually hard wired. And leaders who accept and use these findings stand to gain the benefits of a fully engaged work force. It’s a brainy thing to do.

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[i] Sirota, David, Louis A. Mishkind, Michael Irwin Meltzer. The Enthusiastic Employee. Wharton School Publishing, 2005.
[ii] Science Daily, May 29, 2008.
[iii] Scientific American, September 15, 2008.
[iv] Grant, K.A., C. A. Shively, M. N. Nader, R. L., Ehrenkaufer, S.W. Line, T. E. Morton, H. D. Gage, and R. H. Mach. “Effect of socials status on striatal dopamine D2 receptor binding characteristics in dynomolgus monkeys assessed with positron emission tomography.” Synapse 29, no. 1 (1998): 80-83.
[v] Eisenberger, Naomi I., Matthew D. Lieberman. “Why It Hurts to Be Left Out: The neurocognitive overlap between physical and social pain.” In K. D. Williams, J. P. Forgas, & W. von Hippel (Eds.), The Social Outcast: Ostracism, Social Exclusion, Rejection, and Bullying (pp. 109-127). New York: Cambridge University Press.
[vi] New York Times, D1, January 10, 2011.