The following article is not owned by Engage for Success, it was initially published on the IEDP website.
VIEWPOINT: James Parsons continues his exploration on how new neuro-knowledge should alter the way we manage people at work.
No, I’m not going to reinvent the wheel, yet again. I suspect you’d disappear faster than a Krispy Kreme at a weightwatchers meeting. However I would like briefly explore what brain science has to say about the age-old problem of keeping people happy at work.
“Engagement” is a term that has lost its currency, a notion cheapened by recurrent efforts to intensively farm it in big companies. It strikes me that there are as many and varied definitions and interpretations of engagement as there are organisations and industries and the individuals who inhibit them. Measuring engagement is also fraught with difficulty. Rather than answering the “what” and “how” questions, I think we need to look at the “why”.
Most of the folk I have seen in a career coaching context have testified to bad relationships with managers or colleagues as a primary driver of career dissatisfaction, as opposed to problems with their functional roles.
The Social Brain
Emotions are everything. In the first of this series of short notes, I highlighted the point that the limbic brain assesses events in terms of threat and reward, or more succinctly, avoids or attaches emotionally to events as they happen. What happens next seems to follow a mysterious process .
The profoundly social and emotional nature of the brain indicates that performance will be foundationally affected by emotional processing of any event and state of relationship between people involved. These feelings (step 5) are what create behaviours and it is these behaviours which drive our performance at work.
Efforts to engage are missing the target
We want engaged workforces because it has some commercial benefit, right? But efforts to improve cultures, whether through leadership programs, talent strategies, training, communications, new rules, bonuses, EVPs or off-sites, are nothing if the relationship between person A and person B on the ground does not improve. And relationships improve only if behaviour changes. But behavioural change requires physical change to the brain by creating neural growth that supports new behaviours and neglecting neural pathways that entrench unwanted behaviours such that they start to wither away.
This is a different proposition to much HR intervention nowadays that overly focuses on fostering engagement through “process” to try to get people to play nice at work.
Relationship difficulties occur at the individual level because we are not great at seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. The brain will do all it can to resist change to existing neural patterning and makes this process well-nigh impossible, unless the person feels safe to try out different ways of interacting with others. It explains why so many well-meant change initiatives fail. If done well, a coaching culture works so much better by allowing someone to bring to awareness the non-conscious habitual emotions driving their existing behaviours, model different ones and practice new ways of interacting that over time “hardwire” and become normal.
As I mentioned last time, people don’t want to be managed, they want to be unleashed. Gen X and Y think differently. They want freedom and independence, to feel a belonging at work and to enjoy themselves. Giving people ownership is key; telling them what to do just doesn’t seem to work anymore. When people solve things themselves, the brain makes patterns and emits a rush of dopamine. The reward response from real ownership of tasks can be stronger than a bonus. In these cash-strapped times, that should be of serious interest.
Leadership styles must move from command and control to collaboration. Your people will give of their best under optimal conditions of each domain of SCARF (Rock, 2007), a model for collaborating with and influencing others. These five domains either activate reward or threat responses in the limbic system and determine neural circuitry that drives behaviour. Provided you help maintain an individual’s balance of SCARF, such approaches deliver higher performance from staff and help find this elusive thing called “engagement”. It requires trust to flow from the top down, so if leaders aren’t engaged with engaging, the whole thing won’t get off the ground.
About the author
James Parsons started his career on the trading floor of large financial institutions in the City of London. He is now a leadership coach with extensive experience coaching people in leadership roles in professional services firms, financial services and law firms, as well as offering workshops in areas such as networking, career management, team behaviours and using social media effectively. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.untappedtalentcareers.com