Think about your last few days at work – how have they been? We all have days when our brains feel sharp and we know we are doing great work. We also all have days where we get to 6pm and wonder where the day went and what we achieved. What makes the difference? How can we ensure ourselves more of those good days at work, and how can we enable our teams and all our colleagues to have more productive days?
By understanding more about our brains, we can work better with them. Although behavioural science and neuroscience (the study of the nervous system including the brain) are still in their infancy, they are already providing valuable insights to which every leader, every organisation, every communications professional and indeed every one of us could usefully sit up and pay attention, both for our own personal benefit and for the advantage of our organisations.
To organisations that must find ways of improving performance while supporting the emotional and mental wellbeing of their employees, the findings of neuroscience offer an obvious ‘win-win’. For the organisation it’s about improving productivity, collaboration and innovation; for employees the win is about finding work that is satisfying and enhances a sense of self worth (and at the very least does not undermine their physical or mental health). An organisation or individual that understands what causes stress and anxiety to the brain – which literally damage it – can remove some of those stressors.
"For the organisation it’s about improving productivity, collaboration and innovation."
Although neuroscience can be complex, the good news is that applied neuroscience can be very practical to apply in the workplace. Small acts and behaviours can make a big difference. Better still, it helps leaders to improve performance without requiring a huge budget. It is not about paying people more; behavioural science and applied neuroscience reveal what really motivates us, deep down. Yet more good news: whereas some leaders might not warm to the language of employee communication and employee engagement, the language of science can be very persuasive to even the most sceptical of leaders. As one leader put it in one of our workshops, “This isn’t the usual psychofluff we get from you comms people, this is science!”
Our brains tend to work at their best when they are in what is called a ‘reward’ state and work less well when they are in a ‘threat’ state. Figure 1 sets out the impact on our brain of being in threat or reward state.
This begs the question what causes the threat state and what we can do to help ourselves and our people be in more of a ‘reward’ state at work. There are various factors that, if we have them, put our brains into a reward state but if we lack them, put our brain into a threat state.* This article takes a look at four of them.
When we have a sense of purpose, especially a sense of shared purpose with others, our brain chemistry changes and our resilience increases: we are less sensitive to pain and better equipped to deal with challenges at work. Our sense of wellbeing improves. Feeling that our work matters and is meaningful puts our brains into a positive, reward state.
One fascinating piece of research from Adam Grant, Professor of Psychology at Wharton University, describes an experiment where he took the fund-raising team of a university and divided them into two. One group met a beneficiary of their fundraising, just for five minutes, and the beneficiary told them about the impact of their work on his life. The other half did not meet a beneficiary. Grant found that fund-raising amongst the team that met the former student beneficiary increased by over 170% and not just in the following weeks but even into the following month whereas the fund-raising of the control group remained unchanged. It is a simple story but it illustrates the impact of connecting employees to those who benefit from their work.
We work better when we feel our work has meaning and has a purpose. Connecting our employees to the beneficiaries of their work is one way of enhancing that sense of purpose.
No one likes to be micro-managed. The brain needs a sense of having some control. Identify what people can control, allow them to have some influence and this helps to build their resilience. Even in the most difficult circumstances there is always something that employees can control. We ran workshops for leaders and managers in one government department that was closing and jobs were going. Initially the leaders thought there were no opportunities for employees to be involved. But as they reflected, they realised employees could make decisions about how to hold leaving parties for people, what to keep and what to throw away. Having a sense of some control, even if it is over quite small matters, puts our brains into a more positive state.
The brain likes certainty. If we don’t have it, we are distracted and waste a huge amount of energy speculating. Some recent research conducted by University College London shows that uncertainty can cause more stress than inevitable pain: knowing that there is a small chance of getting a painful electric shock can lead to significantly more stress than knowing you will definitely get a painful shock. The human brain can find bad news easier to deal with than no news. I saw this in a bank where I was asked to work with 70 leaders to help keep employees focused and hitting targets even though they all knew they would be out of a job within 18 months. The leaders and their teams excelled, hit their targets and had very good employee engagement scores. What helped the leaders? They said it was in part because they had certainty: they knew they would soon have to leave the bank, but this meant they could get on and make a plan to do this. They could take back some control. Their colleagues in the main bank performed less well – they were unsure whether their jobs were secure or not. It is uncertainty that is so debilitating.
"The brain likes certainty. If we don’t have it, we are distracted and waste a huge amount of energy speculating."
So, how can you lessen uncertainty for employees? What more can you tell them? Even if there is no news, you can make them certain about what the communications process will be, when and how they will learn more.
We have hugely underestimated people’s need for social connection. We know in our personal lives that relationships matter but for some reason expect employees not to care so much about this at work. Neuroscience shows that this is a big mistake. Feeling that we belong and that we are part of a team changes the chemicals in our brain. If we feel we belong, that someone at work is interested in us, our brains are on the right-hand side of Figure 1. Social rejection, feeling part of an ‘outgroup’, negatively affects our IQ, our memory, our staying power, and our ability to reason. Good relationships at work are not just nice to have, they boost our brain power.
This article touches on a few of the ways in which we can help get employees’ brains into a state where they can work at their best. To create an organisation that can really perform at its best, every leader needs to understand enough about neuroscience to both nurture and get the most out of their own and their employees’ brains.
- *These four form part of a six-part model called SPACES – read more in Neuroscience for Organizational Change – an evidence-based, practical guide to managing change.
This article is based on Hilary’s keynote presentation “Neuroscience, or How to Help Engagement” at Quadriga’s 2016 Internal Communication Conference in Berlin.