Leading with the Brain In Mind = Happy C.A.M.P.E.R.S.

Posted on September 25, 2014. Filed under: Linda Ray, Practical Strategies | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

In this post, Linda Ray, co-founder and co-director of neuresource group, looks at seven key influences of employee motivation, productivity and engagement.


As Sky is walking to the water cooler, her boss passes by.  He is clearly rushing to another meeting, but briefly pauses and says  “Hi Sky, I would like you to come by my office, I’ve got some feedback for you.  I will be available at 3:00pm.”   It is 11:30 a.m. 

49. Working girl stressed and exhausted

 So what does Sky do for the next few hours?  The word ‘FEEDBACK’ has elicited as great a fear response in her brain as walking down a dark ally and hearing footsteps behind her.  Sky’s brain is shouting loudly  “Danger, Danger, Danger”.

Because Sky is now pretty limbic, she will spend at least 42% of the time imagining and playing out in her mind:

·      What have I done?

·      What did I stuff up?

·      Who did I upset?

·      What have I forgotten to do?

·      What could he possibly want to give me some feedback about?

 Cortisol has begun flooding through her brain, and it impacts significantly on encoding of new information, so she probably won’t remember anything she tries to learn or pay attention to anyway.

Our brains crave certainty and this is why we spend so much time trying to predict the future…we usually get it wrong!   Sky doesn’t eat because she is sick with worry and she has a report due at 4:00 pm, but she is struggling to concentrate.  Sky’s brain has used up precious glucose trying to predict what her boss wants to meet with her about.   She even checks out Seek to see what jobs might be around.

As 3:00pm gets closer she finds her hands sweating and her heart is beating faster and faster.   When she arrives at her boss’s office, he stuns Sky by telling her he wanted to congratulate her on a piece of work she completed a few months ago and to see if he could persuade her to mentor a couple of other staff in the new ideas she had been implementing with her team.  Whilst very pleasantly surprised, Sky wishes she had been given a hint of this before she spent hours in a world of pain and now she has less than 40 minutes to finish that report and she feels exhausted!

What are your hunches about her productivity, her motivation or her engagement levels?

Generally we don’t set out to put people in a threat state, we often do this unintentionally. However, a simple phrase like “can I give you some feedback” can put us in a threat state.  “I am not sure about that idea”, “If I were you”, etc. are all well-intentioned statements, but they can unintentionally generate a threat response in your people.

Clearly this isn’t the state we want our people in, if we want them to remain productive and engaged. When people are in a threat state they become more risk adverse, their perspective narrows and creativity is inhibited as the brain seduces us to take the safest option.  In our work life our executive brain (pre-frontal cortex) helps us make decisions, prioritise, plan, inhibit and recall memories. The tricky bit is that the more limbic we get the more this part of our brain shuts down as the brain prepares us for the fight, flight or freeze response. It is a bit like a seesaw… as one goes up the other goes down.

Just as we have primary needs necessary for our survival, we now know that social needs are also treated by the brain as primary needs and when they are not met we can experience a strong threat response.

There are several domains of our social experience in the workplace that can activate a threat or reward response.   We build here upon the work done by David rock in his SCARF model. We also draw on the key points made by Dan Pink that motivation is served by autonomy, purpose and mastery.  The collective brain of one of our Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership groups merged these two ideas and proposed that in order to get the best out of people we want people to be happy C.A.M.P.E.R.S™ .CAMPERS

What can we do to keep people in a reward state?

There are 7 areas we need focus attention on:

Certainty – As we saw in Sky’s story, she spent a significant amount of time trying to predict what her boss was going to say. Certainty is a challenge in a world that is constantly changing. We need to give people as much certainty as possible and be clear about expectations.  Imagine how different it might have been for Sky had her boss added another sentence to his statement, which indicated the feedback, was going to be positive.

Autonomy – Do you like to being told what to do? We feel in a reward state when we feel we have choice and influence. It can be as simple as asking a person which issue should we tackle first? What do you think is the best approach? Micro managing is a killer for autonomy and generates significant threat in the brain.

Mastery – we all want to feel that we have the competence to do what is required of us. It is great to have autonomy but unless people feel they have the competence and skills necessary to do a task we can easily move our people into a threat state. We need to make sure we match a task or project with a person’s level of competence. We also need to ensure we have pathways in place for people to build competence and skill, this is key to keeping people engaged.

Purpose – we have a desire to feel we are contributing to something meaningful. Do your people know your why and how they contribute to your business purpose? People will always be motivated to fulfil their own goals – are they aligned with the business goals?

Equity – we all want to feel we are being treated fairly and equitably. We will compare our sense of fairness with others.  Are others in the team getting the best jobs, or are they being rewarded more than us?  When we experience a threat to fairness we can lose perspective and act in ways that makes no sense to those around us.

Relatedness – we are born to connect.  We want to feel part of a social group. Do you provide opportunities for people to spend time together, to get to know one another?  The brain treats every new person we meet as foe before friend until we assess there is something about the other person that is like us.

 Status – we all care about our sense of importance and where we fit with others in a social context. Status can be threatened very easily e.g. challenging an idea, saying, “If I were you”,  or taking credit for an idea that wasn’t yours. When was the last time you showed appreciation to your people?  It is such a simple and under-done strategy that creates a reward state in people.

We need to be mindful of how easy it is to cause a threat in each of these areas. A threat in one domain can have a domino effect in the other domains. Think back to the story of Sky…what domains was she experiencing a threat state in? What did it do to her levels of engagement, motivation and productivity?

We need to be keeping an eye out for opportunities to move people into a reward state and address the needs of the brain in each of these areas. The best companies to work for (e.g Atlassian with over 80% engagement levels) have nailed this and we can see the results in their engagement levels, in their levels of discretionary effort, in their capacity for innovation, lower absenteeism rates and in their bottom line profits.

Old practices of ruling by fear, by control and command, using pay for performance don’t facilitate people to be in a reward state. The evidence from science is clear. We need to be building brain-friendly cultures and leading with the brain in mind.

Linda-RayLinda is the Managing Director of NeuroCapability and the co-founder/director of neuresource group. These organisations are playing key roles in developing a new generation of thinking leaders through delivery of the Diploma of Neuroscience of Leadership and other innovative programs informed by neuroscience. Linda is gaining recognition both in Australia and internationally as a thought leader in the neuroleadership field. She is actively contributing to the body of knowledge that supports the building of individual and organisational ‘neurocapability’.

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