At one point in my career I was one of the seventy precent and it was terrible! I know it can be better! This is why I started my business.
This intricate, difficult and persistent problem has spawned a billion dollar industry over many decades with thousands of books, consulting firms, training organizations and coaches all trying to improve employee engagement. Given that statistics remain so very consistent, you have to wonder is it just futile? What strikes me about this is that because it is so pervasive and consistent over time it seems to indicate that it is something about our nature as humans.
Something about the human experience at work has to be at play here.
I am currently completing studies in Neuroscience of Leadership and I have been exposed to research that is helping us better understand how our brains operate in the context of leadership, teams and organizations. A big take-away is that our brain is primarily a ‘social’ organ which has a powerful influence on how we interpret, experience and respond to everything.
Dr. David Rock, who has a PHD in Neuroscience of Leadership and has written several books on the topic, has developed a useful model to help us better understand and manage our ‘social’ brain at work. His work provides great insights into what might be at the heart of employment engagement or disengagement.
An important thing to understand about your brain is that it has two key organizing principles: to avoid danger and approach reward. The need to avoid danger is by far the stronger influence and deeply entrenched, as it is how our ancestors stayed alive living in the jungle; and to this day whether we are aware of it or not it is still a major force in the corporate jungle.
While the basic premise of employment is to get paid (reward) for a performing a job, this contract of work for monetary reward is falling short. Giving reward seems obvious and easy…. salary, perks, praise and free pizza but it just not enough as we can see by the statistics.
Taking care of this more profound need to avoid danger and feel safe is a far subtler task that requires a skillful and consistent moment-to-moment approach. But in this, I think, is part of the solution for the ‘seventy per cent”.
In order to help better understand the brain at work Dr Rock has developed a wonderful model that outline the five social needs of our brain: The SCARF Model. These social needs activate the same circuitry in the brain in the same way that physical threats and rewards are activated. It can have powerful impact on whether people feel safe and are able to function at their best (access your executive function) or in danger and feel need to withdraw or shut-down (fight or flight response).
This is my summary of the Scarf model because I think it is useful resource for leaders and needs to be shared as widely as possible.
Status is all about how we see ourselves in comparison to others in various social situations. It underpins our needs for respect and recognition (this gives us a clue to the addictive tendency that some people experience counting the LIKES on their Facebook page). When people do things that elevate our status we experience a rush of positive feelings that will result in better thinking and enhanced engagement. On the contrary when people do things that lower our status we will feel threatened and likely withdraw or become defensive. Just reflect on your last performance review & spare a kind thought for Tony Abbott our now ex-prime minister.
Certainty Our brain really likes to know what will happen next. When the outcomes happen as expected then our brain will feel rewarded rather than threatened. This produces positive feelings that again enhance our ability to perform well. I am working with a team in one organization who is currently going through a restructure. It has been an on-going process for a few months now and I know the lack of certainty is having a detrimental impact on productivity and engagement as everyone nervously awaits the announcement.
Autonomy Our brains yearn for choice and control over our environment and our work. I have one word…Micro-manage. Who has not had the experience of being micro-managed at work? How engaged did you feel? When you are given greater control over what, when and how you do your work you will feel more engagement and enjoyment.
Relatedness This need for relatedness is all about our need to feel part of the group. Our brain is constantly monitoring people as friend or foe (enter alcohol and suddenly everyone is our friend). Can we relate to this person or not? Are they like me or not? This notion of being in the group is a very powerful one. When we feel left out or rejected we experience emotional pain in the same way as physical pain. Being new to the team or not being invited along to a social event can cause the threat response to be triggered.
Fairness Are things equal and being done by the rules by all, as they have been set out? This notion of things being unfair can be a great driver for many people. Just think of the many organisations and individuals around the world fighting on behalf of thousands of social justice issues. It shows up at work when commitments are met and communication is open. I recently attended a lunch where Maile Carnegie, MD of Google ANZ, spoke about the power of transparency at Google. A level of transparency so complete that it included employee access to board meeting minutes and her own performance review as MD. Transparency is a powerful message of fairness!
The Scarf Model is a great resource for understanding the social needs of the brain. As one of client said, “How can I remember all this when I am in the middle of a meeting or conversation with a colleague”? Good point. I think at least understanding that we are all driven by the needs of our social brain to avoid danger and move toward reward is a good start. Avoiding danger will always be the stronger influence. So a ‘safety comes first’ approach is a good rule of thumb. Use your own social brain as the touchstone. Ask yourself would ‘this’ make me feel safe?
The ‘safety’ factor is not the entire solution for the prickly 'disengagement ‘ issue but it is part of it. When I think back to my own experience: Expectations were set but not met, changes happened frequently without communication and there seemed to be different sets of rules at play. The impact on me was to feel uncertain, excluded and unsafe. At the time it felt like the worst experience but it did inspire me to start my business. So a good outcome in the end!!!