Lena Durbec, workplace innovation and wellbeing at work consultant, on how understanding the risk/reward workings of the brain can make more productive workers.
Every manager dreams of a team that is fully engaged, productive, happy and creative. To achieve this, a few insights into how the brain functions and what conditions favour its peak performance may be helpful. In this case, neuroscience – the study of the brain and the nervous system – should be your first source of reference.
The brain is said to be ‘the most complex structure in the observable universe’, containing a hundred billion neurons and a hundred trillion connections, and we are only beginning to understand it. However, what we already know about it allows us to use it for people management. Scientific insights may now help us understand why employees deliver below their potential, why they lack engagement, why there seem to be no results from training, and why morale is low in times of crisis.
Even though today we live in a socially constructed world, we still have powerful evolutionary mechanisms and reflexes defining us as ‘social animals’. Our brain is still conditioned by the survival instinct, and our behaviour is still determined by threats and rewards. This has direct implications for the workplace.
The brain is a social organ wired for connection. Research has demonstrated that social interaction is vital to human health and wellbeing and that it fundamentally shapes our emotions, physiology, and behaviour. For instance, researchers found that social exclusion, humiliation or sidelining activate the same area of the brain as physical pain. At work, it means that when we dismiss colleagues at a meeting or consistently overlook their achievements, they will experience pain.
The SCARF model
David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, shows that the human brain perceives the workplace as a social system, in which there is a constant interplay of threats and rewards. He invented the SCARF model (see figure, right) to demonstrate how this affects people’s engagement and performance at work. SCARF stands for the five domains of social experience: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. When decisions and events affect these five domains, the brain activates a threat or reward response.
A threat will produce reactions such as fear, anxiety and insecurity. A reward will generate more cognitive resources, better decision-making and a sense of belonging. For instance, an employee who is micro-managed by a supervisor will feel her Autonomy being jeopardised. This will lead to negative emotions, which will in turn increase her stress levels and reduce her mental performance. Another employee, whose department is being restructured, has his Certainty endangered, and will experience the same effect.
As a manager, if you know this, you can navigate changes more wisely and provide people with their neurological needs. In the first example, you can train your employee and provide her with the trust to do her job independently. In the second example, if you cannot prevent restructuring, you can still comfort the employee by increasing his Status, for instance by public recognition of his achievements.
Keeping in mind these five basic needs of the human brain will help you make better decisions, avoid mistakes and support people in times of crisis. For instance, the recent COVID-19 situation has endangered many workers’ need for Certainty, resulting in fear and anxiety. What could help is giving reassurance in what remains certain (for instance that everybody will be provided with personal protective equipment), and provide the feeling of inclusion, maintaining regular contact between employees, which would increase Relatedness.
Deborah Hulme, founder of Minerva Engagement, says neuroscience will help us move from being good managers to great leaders. ‘We will unlock team creativity, enable greater agility, encourage collaboration and improve performance and productivity in ways we have not been able to access previously.’
Employees tend to choose a psychologically safe workplace with a good team over the one with higher pay
Stress is the killer
Neuroscientific research has likewise helped us understand what factors create stress and what effects it has on our body and brain. A great deal of stress in the workplace comes from human communication and relationships. Constant control, negative feedback, criticism, rejection, and lack of transparency and empathy contribute to a stress response and release of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol.
Research demonstrates that prolonged stress impairs working memory, attention, decision-making and cognitive flexibility.
This impairment happens because stress activates the limbic system, the emotional centre of the brain controlling survival-related emotions such as fear and anger, thus stealing resources from other parts of the brain, in particular from the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for intellectual functions.
So what can create more favourable conditions for a healthy and productive workforce?
We often see financial rewards as the best way to praise human talent, but studies have demonstrated that financial incentives hinder rather than promote creative problem-solving and motivation. Employees tend to choose a psychologically safe workplace with a good team over the one with higher pay. From the brain perspective, it is clear why a lack of recognition and appreciation is such a common reason for resignation
– it is a deep and basic need.
We must create conditions in which the brain thrives – with maximised rewards, a feeling of safety, trust and connection.
Deborah Hulme says: ‘The more we know about how to enable trust, build relationships and get the best from the cognitive resources we all have available, the better we can perform as individuals and as a team.’
To demonstrate the power of this approach, she described the case of an Australian retail company looking to increase store revenues. Having tried several strategies without success, an audit revealed that many team members had low levels of psychological safety and that inconsistent leadership was impacting staff and store performance, reducing sales conversion rates considerably. Targeted coaching and workshops increased per store revenue by more than $30,000 a month.
Success in learning: Emotion 101
Gary Luffman, director at think. change. consultancy, applies neuroscience to the learning process. He says that any kind of learning, development or change is actually a neurological process and not just a podcast, programme or webinar. For learning to be effective, it is vital to ensure that the learners are in a state of ‘relaxed alertness’, feeling safe, supported and willing to engage with the content. The learning experience should be emotive rather than dry or boring. Elements of social and physical activity, feedback, helping others and humour activate brain chemical dopamine, associated with reward, and helps people better retain new patterns of thinking and behaviour.
He says: ‘Knowing that most of our brain’s work is subconscious and emotionally driven can be a hard pill for some business executives to swallow. But once we accept this and start working with the brain’s mechanisms rather than unwittingly working against them, we can make significant changes to our workplace effectiveness and wellbeing.’
‘Working in recruitment and supporting smarter hiring decisions means you need to be able to understand people beyond their skill-set and qualifications,’ says Sanah Ali, recruiter at Shirley Parsons. ‘It is a sector about people and what underpins people is their neuropsychology: cognition and behaviours. This means understanding candidates and finding them the right job you need to have a good insight into their motivations, personality and emotions. Recruitment shouldn’t just be a transactional business but a matching of attributes.’
Neuroscience sets out the evidence on why recognition, inclusion, encouragement and kindness at work are not optional but mandatory if we want a prosperous and sustainable business.
Psychological safety is fundamental for a creative and productive workplace, whereas high levels of stress are detrimental to it. Hopefully, more and more organisations will learn these facts, apply them in practice, and benefit from them daily.