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Activate and Engaged (Part 2)

While the way to a man’s heart may be through his stomach, the way to his commitment is through his brain. Not so long ago, and only if your town had an impressive library, you might have found the idea of mapping the inner workings of the human brain filed under the ‘crazy’ Science Fiction section.  With some quantum leaps in neuroscience research over the past two decades (and with the NeuroLeadership Group making it so simple to understand), however, applying a brain-based approach to employee engagement is as easy as winning a hungry man over with a piece of chicken pie.
In Part 1 of Activated and Engaged, we highlighted that the brain’s organising principle is to minimise danger and maximise reward, and we introduced David Rock’s SCARF Model as a dependable framework for developing a culture of workplace engagement.  In this instalment, we use SCARF as a lens for understanding why many attempts to foster a culture of engagement fail, and how to get it right.
Status is all about relative importance, ‘pecking order’ and seniority – and being relative. It’s usually in the eye of the beholder.  Our sense of status goes up when we feel ‘better than’ someone else and the mere perception of diminished status can generate a strong threat response.  One study (by Eisenberger, 2003) revealed that a status reduction caused by being left out of an activity lit up the same regions of the brain as physical pain.  And it’s very easy to inadvertently threaten someone’s sense of status. Merely giving advice or instructions, or simply suggesting that one employee is less competent in an area than another can set off the ‘threat sensors’.  This could explain why performance reviews are largely ineffective at stimulating behavioural change, and why there is little room for such a mechanism in a brain-based employee engagement strategy.
How to harness Status towards creating a culture of engagement
Workers generally perceive a status increase when they are learning and improving, and when attention is paid to this improvement.  Remember that status is all about being ‘better than’.  By focusing on employee development – rather than promotion – as an employee engagement strategy, the status challenge can be shifted from external to internal.  Stated more simply, an employee’s reward circuitry from a sense of being ‘better than’ is activated if she is able to improve on her previous time or quality of completing a task – only in this  case the only person she is now ‘better than’ is her former self.
Because the brain is a pattern-recognition machine that is constantly trying to predict the near future, it craves certainty, so that prediction is possible. Without prediction, the brain must use dramatically more energy-intensive resources.  Even a small amount of uncertainty – like typing on a new keyboard, drinking coffee from a different cup to our usual one, or someone behaving a bit strangely – generates an error response in the brain. Until this ‘error’ is resolved it is difficult to focus on other things. Larger uncertainties, like not knowing your boss’s expectations or whether your job is secure, can be highly debilitating.
How to harness Certainty towards creating a culture of engagement
When attempting to increase certainty as part of an organisation’s employee engagement strategy, there is a long list of avenues and angles that needs to be considered.  While every organisation, department and manager has unique certainty influencers, the NeuroLeadership Group’s successful consulting in this area has revealed a common departure point: improve communication.  At the most basic level, this would include things like agreeing verbally how long a meeting will run, or stating clear objectives at the start of any discussion.  Even in very uncertain periods (such as organisational restructuring, for example), providing a specific date when people will receive more information about a change may be enough to increase a sense of certainty.
Autonomy is the perception of having control over our environment, i.e. a sense of having choices.  Being micro-managed, as an example of reduced autonomy, can generate a strong threat response. An increase in the perception of autonomy, on the other hand, feels very rewarding. Very simply, a personal sense of control reduces stress and enhances creativity.  Many who flee corporate life – often for less money – do so because they desire more independence.
How to harness Autonomy towards creating a culture of engagement
Mark Twain was once quoted as saying, “I respect a man who knows how to spell a word more than one way.”  Similarly, autonomy loves a manager who is open to more than one way of achieving an outcome.  The statement, ‘Here are two options that could work, which would you prefer?’ will tend to elicit a better response than ‘Here’s what you have to do now’.  Even allowing people to set up their own desks and organise their workflow can be beneficial if done within agreed parameters.  The creation of policies and procedures which enable individual point-of-need decision-making will serve to hard-wire autonomy into the processes of an organisation – ultimately improving engagement.
Relatedness involves deciding whether others are ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a social group, a friend or a foe.  People naturally like to form ‘tribes’ where they experience a sense of belonging.  In the absence of safe social interactions – even when meeting someone for the first time – the body generates a threat response.  The concept of relatedness is closely linked to trust. We more easily trust those who appear to be in our group – with whom we’ve connected – generating approach emotions. And when someone does something untrustworthy, the usual response is to withdraw. The more people trust one another, the stronger the collaboration and the more information that is shared, the healthier employee engagement will be.
How to harness Relatedness towards creating a culture of engagement
To increase the reward response from relatedness, the key is to find ways to increase safe connections between people. Some examples include setting up clearly defined buddy systems, mentoring and coaching programmes, and small action learning groups.
Our perception of workplace fairness might best be summed up in a quote by Anton Chekhov, “No matter how corrupt and unjust a convict may be, he loves fairness more than anything else”.  A number of studies illustrate that fair exchanges are intrinsically rewarding, independent of other factors.  People who perceive others as unfair don’t feel empathy for their pain, and in some instances, will feel rewarded when someone else whom they consider unfair is punished.
How to harness Fairness towards creating a culture of engagement
Perceived unfairness threats can be decreased by increasing transparency, and increasing the level of communication and involvement about business issues.  Establishing clear expectations in all situations – from a one-hour meeting to a five-year contract – can also help to ensure that fair exchanges occur.  Clearly communicated ground rules, expectations and objectives will facilitate a general perception of fairness.
In closing
The NeuroLeadership Group proposes that the deepest levels of engagement will be experienced when employees experience a reward response across all five domains of SCARF.  Conventional approaches to motivating and rewarding staff are largely based on the carrot and stick principle, with the carrot mostly involving money or a promotion. The SCARF model points to more creative ways of engaging the workforce that may not just be cheaper, but also stronger and more sustainable.
If you are interested in finding out more about the Certificate in NeuroLeadrship, please contact Charmaine at
Activated and Engaged is a blended adaptation of two articles which were previously published in the NeuroLeadership Journal, namely: SCARF: a brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others, by David Rock (Issue 1, 2008); and Neuroscience of Engagement, by David Rock and Dr Yiyuan Tang (Issue 2, 2009).

Simon Kozlowski is an associate of the NeuroLeadership Group SA

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