Bringing neuroscience to employee engagement

How can you create an engaged mindset inside your organisations? Employee communications specialist Hilary Scarlett gives top tips on the power of neuroscience.


There’s a great deal of excitement around neuroscience at the moment: some Olympic champions have attributed their success to better understanding of their brain, every third ad on the London Underground seems to include a picture of a brain, and on both sides of the Atlantic, the European Union and the Obama Administration have stated that they will invest billions in mapping the brain to enable us to understand it better. I’ve worked in change management and employee engagement for more years than I care to remember and for me, coming across neuroscience and then studying its application to organisations was a Eureka moment. Here are just ten of the reasons why:

1. At long last, neuroscience brings scientific evidence to internal communication and employee engagement, proving it’s not ‘soft’

2. It underpins the instincts of good communicators and leaders, for example: we work better when we have a good relationship with our line manager. Neuroscience means that this is no longer a matter of opinion

3. Performance: neuroscience is all about what helps our brains to perform at their best. It brings essential insights to any leader with an interest in hitting targets, improving innovation and collaboration in the organisation. So, leaders and managers ignore this at their peril

4. It has identified intrinsic motivators that, if leaders gets them right, can make a huge impact on engagement and our ability to perform at our best, but if they get them wrong, has an enormous detrimental effect

5. Recent research suggests that we have hugely underestimated how strong our need for social connection at work is

6. Neuroscience raises questions about how we work – open plan offices, emails popping up, mobile devices always on: all these combined impede our ability to think and to be creative

7. When we understand how our brains work, we can work with the physiology, not fight against it

8. It’s useful at both the macro level and the micro: from how to plan change in an organisation to how to organise your day to enable your brain to think at its best

9. On a personal level, stop multi-tasking: your brain can’t do it: multi-tasking is just doing several things badly at once

10. It is proving very persuasive with the most sceptical of leaders.

What is neuroscience?

Neuroscience, the study of the nervous system including the brain, is still in its infancy. The reason it is suddenly having such an impact is that the number of fMRI scanners over the last two decades has increased and we are now at a stage where, with some caution (there’s a lot of neuro-hype and misinformation out there), we can apply neuroscientists’ research to the workplace. It provides practical insights into many aspects of work – how to stay calm under pressure, why storytelling works, what helps us to learn, why we find change hard. In this article, I’m just going to focus on employee engagement.

Our brains are not designed for 21st workplaces

We work in a 21st the same as those of our prehistoric ancestors. Their brains were wired to ensure they survived, century workplaces century environment but our brains, although they have evolved, are largely still otherwise we wouldn’t be here, so two fundamental principles drove them: avoid threat and seek reward. Of these, avoiding threat was the much stronger drive as it was more essential for survival. Our 21st century brains still operate in the same way, although the threats might look a little different.

Our brains are constantly on the lookout

Our brains are constantly, subconsciously, on the lookout for things that might threaten us or for things we might find rewarding. Our brains crave certainty and information and so significant organisational change represents a threat to our brain, as does being ignored by our manager. How does your brain react to the question, ‘Can I give you some feedback?’ – I suspect that has put it into a threat state. On the other hand, hitting a deadline, getting praise for a job well done, learning, being listened to puts our brains into a ‘reward’ or ‘toward’ state.

The diagram below summarises the impact on our brains of being in a threat state or toward state. Take a look at the list on the right-hand side: to me, this is the description of an engaged employee.

So this leads to the question how do we get employees to the right-hand side and how do we keep them there?

Creating an engaged mindset

I recently worked with some leaders in a bank who were somewhat sceptical about employee engagement but who were very concerned about enabling their team to keep on performing at their best. To hit their targets, these leaders recognised that they needed their teams to have mindsets that reflect the right-hand side of the diagram. So, in the sessions we explored what they could do to ensure their teams brains were in a toward state and what they needed to avoid doing that would put them in a threat state. One of the areas we explored was self-esteem: feeling respected has a significant impact on our brains (and even on our longevity, but that’s a story for another day) so we discussed what they could do to ensure each team member felt respected and trusted by the leader.

One of our deep needs is to have a sense of some control. If we have no control, we are helpless and, in prehistoric times, unlikely to survive. Lack of autonomy leads to higher levels of stress and cortisol. Cortisol is physically damaging and kills brain cells, especially in the hippocampus which plays an important role in memory. So, with one organisation where offices were being closed and jobs lost and employees had no ability to influence this, we explored with managers all the things they could do to give some control to employees. Just giving a small amount of control back to employees has a huge impact on relieving stress and helps to keep employees’ brains on that right hand side of the diagram.

Our brains are wired to connect

One of the areas that we have underestimated is just how much our brains are wired to be social. Again the reason goes back to survival: as human beings we would not survive our early years if we did not have someone there to look after us: it is deeply rooted in our brains to keep checking that there is someone there for us. We carry this with us throughout our lives. In the workplace, we are constantly checking whether we are part of our manager’s ingroup or outgroup. Most of us have had experiences of managers we got on with and managers we didn’t – think back for a moment on those different experiences. Who got the best out of you? Which manager sent your brain to the left or right of that diagram? It gets more disturbing: when we feel socially excluded, it reduces our ability to think: psychologist Roy Baumeister conducted research into this and average IQ dropped by 13 per cent.

There isn’t space here to go into everything that neuroscience can teach us about employee engagement but here are a few questions to reflect on:

• We know that our brains crave information and certainty, what can you do to give more certainty to employees in your organisation?

• Being part of your manager’s ingroup is essential for your brain to work at its best, how can you help managers create ingroups?

• Having some influence is a huge reliever of stress, where can employees become more involved in decision-making?

• What sends you into a threat or a toward state? Today and tomorrow, at home and at work, notice how you are responding to people and events.

• Neuroscience explains why employee engagement matters: would your leaders and managers benefit from understanding what helps our brains to work at their best?