What Neuroscience tells us about increasing our team’s engagement

In my current role, I have been reading more and more about Neuroscience and its application in the world of business for some time now, and it has struck me how underutilised this field is by organisations. In the area of Engagement especially.

Neuroscience itself is a very complex scientific specialism, that takes many years of study to understand. However, some of the basic knowledge of how the brain and nervous system works can help Managers, Leaders and HR understand how people respond to their environment and those around them, and therefore how they become engaged…or not. This knowledge can be applied to an organisational context and improve engagement in individuals, teams and ultimately, the entire Business, – increasing motivation, productivity and impacting the bottom line.

Why?

It seems that engagement all too often boils down to a yearly “engagement survey” and then an action plan is produced concentrating on addressing areas which show the lowest level of engagement or where employees aren’t as engaged as they were in previous years.

But rather than asking how engaged employees are, it strikes me that the question should be why - why are the employees engaged and what is engaging them? Why were they engaged before and they aren’t as engaged now? Why are they responding to their environment the way they are? Why are different employees engaged to a greater or lesser degree than others?

The definition of Neuroscience has expanded as the understanding of the complexity of the brain has expanded – but in essence it is the study of the nervous system and the brain. The two communicate constantly and the messages are carried by neurotransmitters and hormones. Understanding what triggers the different neurotransmitters and hormones, and the impact they have on the brain, is a relatively simple way for Managers to adapt their behaviour so that they have a positive impact on their employees – knowingly triggering the neurotransmitters and hormones that increase positive feelings and, therefore, engagement.
 

The 5 Factors to increase Engagement

In terms of engagement, there appears to be 5 factors that come up again and again in discussions which Managers should focus on to increase the engagement of their employees.

An understanding of Neuroscience would help the Manager to appreciate why these factors are important and what is actually happening inside their own brain and the brain of each of their employees to make these factors so important. Put simply:

1.    Fairness and Trust – the neurotransmitter Dopamine controls the reward system in our brain and it is also essential for physical motivation. If people feel they are being trusted and treated fairly, Dopamine is released and they feel rewarded and motivated – both physically and mentally. Managers who actively demonstrate trust in their employees will also find they are being seen as trustworthy by their employees as the reward system triggers reciprocal feelings. 

2.    Interacting – people who feel their manager knows and understands them – their likes and dislikes, motivations and turn offs – will also feel rewarded because they feel that their manager is interacting with them on a more personal level, and therefore release Dopamine. Feeling misunderstood or ignored, however, is more likely to lead to confusion and a stress reaction – when the hormone Noradrenaline comes into play. Certain levels of this hormone can be useful and help with vigilance and learning. However, higher levels result in feelings of stress. So, Managers who actively interact with, get to know, learn about and listen to their employees will have a higher chance of triggering Dopamine production and activating the reward system in the employee’s brain.

3.    Autonomy – enabling people to work the way that suits them best and giving them the opportunity to make decisions will result in them being able to deliver their best. This is because people like to feel in control of themselves and what happens to them – different people have different working styles, different times of the day or different situations when they’re at their best. Giving them the ability to feel in control of their environment results in feelings of calm and optimism - triggered by hormones such as endorphins and the feel-good neurotransmitter Serotonin. Employees who are calm and in control are more likely to be engaged and deliver.

4.    Feelings and social connectivity – as many people will tell you, human beings are social creatures first and foremost. People like to feel part of the group, not ostracised or left out as this can result in what has been described as ‘social pain’ which triggers the same response in the brain as physical pain. When people say their feelings are hurt, they are actually describing a similar neural response as they would experience if they were physically hurt……...people remember pain and are not quick to forget. A Manager who regularly considers how people would feel about what they say or do and the decisions they make, can avoid these painful neural responses and instead activate the feel-good neurotransmitter Serotonin.

5.    Threat – people feel uncertain when they are not sure about their position, feel that things are happening ‘behind their back’ or being ‘done to them’ without their knowledge or consent. Lack of communication can make people feel uncertain. This triggers a threat response in the brain – the classic ‘fight or flight’. When people are in fear or feel threatened the main neurotransmitters released are Dopamine, Norepinephrine, and Epinephrine (adrenaline), glutamate, and serotonin which activate the part of the brain called the Amygdala. The amygdala controls emotional response. In addition, the part of the brain that stores memories (the hippocampus) is activated – so that the experience is stored in the long-term memory.

This is how humans and other organisms with brains learn how to survive and what is friend or foe. Managers who are non-threatening and communicate transparently and regularly with employees can remove the chance of this threat reaction, the emotional outcome and the resulting long-term memory storage of the stressful event.

Balancing the above 5 factors is no easy task, the human brain processes so many different things on a daily basis, triggering different neural responses.

So, employee engagement will be ever-changing. This demonstrates why the measurement of engagement should be a continuous activity, rather than just a yearly activity. 
 

3 things to Managers can do:

1)    Do some reading about Neuroscience and the basics of how the brain works. I have put a couple of ideas of easy reading below to get you started

2)    Think about the above 5 factors and how you can do things differently with a knowledge of how the brain of each of your employees is reacting to you and the environment around them. Write down one thing you can do to enhance and minimise your impact in this area.

3)    Think about how your engagement strategy, and the measurement of employee engagement in your organisation, can be adapted based on an understanding of why people are engaged…or not. What can you do as a manager to improve engagement in your team now?

A couple of useful starting points:

The SCARF model (D.Rock) – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness – is often used to describe the 5 factors above. 

    https://neuroleadership.com/solutions/licensing/
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Wu33SdjeCs
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMejNf0dL2g
    http://www.gethppy.com/employee-engagement/employee-engagement-using-neuroscience


Alex Pegg – is an HR, Talent Management & L&D specialist, and Lead Engagement Consultant for Tap’d Solutions