Neuroscience and the four enablers: what helps our brains think and perform at their best? 

The following is a summary of an article by Hilary Scarlett written for Engage for Success and can be accessed here.

The idea in brief

Still trying to persuade senior colleagues that employee engagement can make a real impact on performance and productivity?  Neuroscience helps us understand what enables our brains to perform at their best and provides a scientific lens through which to see engagement.  It is proving very persuasive with even the most sceptical leaders.

Sustained success depends on employees’ ability to think at their best, collaborate and innovate. Neuroscience, the study of the nervous system including the brain, is still in its infancy. However, the growth in the number of fMRI scanners over the last two decades is increasing our understanding of the brain. What is particularly interesting for organisational leaders is that we can now apply learning from neuroscience to the workplace. It provides the insights into what helps our brains to work at their best. It also demonstrates that improving employee engagement doesn’t have to be laborious – many small actions can put our brains into a positive state.

A few key points about our brains

  1. Although our brains have evolved, we still fundamentally have the same brain as our prehistoric ancestors.  Our ancestors’ brains were wired to help them survive: avoid ‘threats’ and seek out ‘rewards’ such as food and shelter.
  2. Being in a threat state has a very negative impact on our brains’ ability to function at work. Being in a reward state, has a positive impact and creates a mindset where we are ‘engaged’: our brains are more incisive, resilient, innovative and collaborative (see the full article for more detail on this).
  3. Our brains are prediction machines – they want to be able to predict and make sense of what is going on around us. Ability to predict saves energy.

The four enablers and neuroscience

Neuroscience provides a scientific look at why the four enablers are essential for us to feel engaged at work.

  1. Leadership/strategic narrative: from a neuroscience perspective, having clarity about direction provides us with certainty and an ability to predict. Seeing how we contribute to the organisation’s purpose boosts our sense of personal self-worth. These put our brains into a ‘toward’ state where we think better.
  2. Engaging managers: neuroscience reveals that we have hugely underestimated our brains’ need for social connection with others. Managers need to ensure every team member feels connected to them and part of an ‘ingroup’. Research shows that feeling excluded has a negative impact on our IQ.
  3. Employee voice: fundamental to our survival instincts, is our need to feel we have some control over our work.  Feeling we have no influence has an impact on our stress levels, memory and ability to think. It is both physically and mentally damaging.
  4. Integrity: espoused values that match real values help provide our brains with certainty and with a sense of fairness – we know what we have to do to get recognised. Fairness is deeply rooted in us and has a major impact on our brains’ ability to perform; lack of it will quickly send us into a threat state.

Creating a brain-friendly workplace does not have to be difficult but it does need awareness of what helps the brain and what hinders.  We pay far too little attention to our brains’ need to be connected socially. Small actions can make a big difference to our brains.  If every leader and every manager understood what our brains need to perform at their best at work, what a difference this would make to their understanding of employee engagement.  See the full article for a list of questions to help you create a brain-friendly workplace.

Hilary will be speaking about neuroscience and employee engagement on the Engage for Success Radio Show on 17 March.

Contact Hilary Scarlett www.scarlettassoc.com

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