The Neuroscience of Employee Engagement

Hilary Scarlett

Hilary Scarlett

Neuroscience is one of the most exciting developments in the fields of change and employee engagement. At last, it brings hard science to bear on employee communication. IABC’s Director of Content Natasha Nicholson asked Hilary Scarlett, director of the U.K.-based employee communication and change management consultancy Scarlett Associates, about what developments in neuroscience mean for organizations that want to boost productivity, innovation and engagement among employees.

Natasha Nicholson: What is neuroscience and how does it apply to organizations?

Hilary Scarlett: Put simply, neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, including the brain. Neuroscientists focus on the brain and its impact on our behavior, how we think, how we make decisions, how we relate to other people, etc. There are many reasons why neuroscience is proving very useful to organizations. Here are just three:

  • Neuroscience tells us about performance—what helps individuals, teams and organizations focus and perform at their best.
  • There are lots of different models of employee engagement, but brain scans can show what leads our brains to be engaged or not.
  • Because it is a science and relates employee engagement to performance, neuroscience is proving very persuasive with the most hard-headed of leaders.

NN: You’ve said that our brains are wired to resist change. What do you mean by this?

HS: Although our brains have evolved, we still fundamentally have the same brain as our prehistoric ancestors. Their brains were wired for survival, to do two key things: avoid threats (like a saber-toothed tiger) and seek out rewards (like shelter, food and warmth). Our 21st-century brains are still wired to do those things. We continue to be constantly on the lookout for things that might harm us. This is both useful and problematic.

To protect us, our brains want to be able to predict what will happen. But change means that our brains cannot make predictions. They are sent into a “flight or fight” state where we can’t think straight, get overly emotional and see threats in the organization where they don’t exist.

NN: You’ve also said that our brains are wired to be social. What does this mean for communication?

HS: Human beings crave connections with other people. This means that communication, and particularly face-to-face communication, is hugely important to us. It’s not just “nice” to do—it helps the brain to focus. I think all of us who work in communication instinctively know this, but neuroscience brings the science to back up our belief.

NN: What are three practical neuroscience-related ideas that communication professionals, leaders and managers can apply?

HS: First, our brains are wired to be social and social rejection has an impact on our IQ. So make sure every member of the team feels part of the manager’s “in group.”

Second, having a sense of purpose and doing good for others is hugely motivating to our brains. Enable employees to connect to the beneficiaries of their work.

Third, our brains don’t like change. Where there is uncertainty, make sure that when and how you communicate is something employees can be certain about.

NN: From a neuroscience perspective, what creates an engaged or disengaged mindset?

HS: Neuroscientists have identified key “domains”—such as certainty and feeling socially connected—which, if we feel positive about them, put our brains into a state of being focused, resilient, more willing to collaborate and more creative, i.e. an engaged mind-set. However, if we don’t feel positive about these domains—if we lack certainty, for example, or feel distant from our manager—our brains go into a threatened state, creating a disengaged mind-set in which we can’t think clearly and underperform. Every communicator, every leader and every person needs to be aware of these states.

Jessica Burnette-Lemon

Jessica Burnette-Lemon

Jessica Burnette-Lemon is CW’s senior editor.

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