Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, Senior Vice President of Engagement Solutions

At its core, the act of hiring a person to perform a job is considered an economic transaction. The employee provides his/her time and energy to perform a set of tasks and, in exchange, the organization provides financial compensation. But that’s not how an employee sees it. Yes, employees certainly expect to get a paycheck, but they expect a lot more than that!

Through breakthroughs in neuroscience research, we now know that our brain predominantly experiences the workplace as a social system in which we navigate and benefit from all of the interrelationships among individuals, groups and the organization as a whole. We all come into the workplace with social needs, such as the need to feel acknowledged and appreciated, the need to be treated fairly and respectfully and the need to feel supported and valued by our supervisor. If these needs are overlooked, neglected or unmet, it’s very difficult to feel engaged.

In my last blog, I shared how our brain is inherently wired to minimize threats and maximize rewards and how our brain’s threat/reward system ultimately impacts how employees feel about your organization. I shared that engagement is an emotional experience… heightened when we feel rewarded (e.g., respected, connected, informed, and valued) and diminished when we feel threatened (e.g., micromanaged, unappreciated, underestimated, or talked down to).

The amygdala, the part of our brain that decides if we are in a threatening situation or a rewarding situation, impacts how the brain prioritizes information. So if something doesn’t make sense, is unfamiliar, unclear, upsetting or feels intimidating, the brain sees it as a threat and gives it full attention. Even though these “social” threats may not be life or death kinds of things, our brain responds to these threats the same way it does to physical threats.

An anxious brain leads to self-protection!

What happens when our brain experiences a threat?

  • Our attention narrows to focus on the perceived threat
  • Our ability to think and reason decreases
  • Our ability to solve problems decreases
  • Collaboration drops
  • Empathy decreases

This automatic reaction leads to decreased effectiveness and efficiency as a person focuses more on protecting themselves as opposed to giving full attention to their work. Not exactly the state of mind that promotes productivity or engagement!

Even a mild threat response creates a strong drop in these things. And when our brain is focused on the threat, there are few resources left to emotionally connect with our work. Depletion of brain resources takes away from extending care and compassion to our residents and gets in the way of working collaboratively with our colleagues.

I have a vivid recollection of an experience that occurred years ago when I was working the 3-11 shift as a unit charge nurse. The evening supervisor, during her early evening rounds, was apparently in a bad mood and started yelling at me because some soiled linens had been left in the utility room by one of the nursing assistants on my unit. She accused me of being a poor supervisor and scolded me in front of two other staff. I remember feeling very upset the rest of the evening. I was humiliated and disgraced. It was hard to concentrate. I kept ruminating about her angry words and started worrying if my job was in jeopardy. I know this exchange impacted my ability to fully engage in my work that evening. Even though this situation occurred many years ago, my brain has held on to that memory. This is a great example of the negativity bias of the brain. The brain has a much greater sensitivity to negative experiences than to positive, and these experiences are quickly stored in our memory.

Beware the amygdala hijack!

In particularly stressful or intense situations, the hair trigger amygdala can literally take over our brain preparing us for flight or fight. This survival instinct has us reacting before our reasoning skills can kick in. The result is often a reflexive emotional outburst… saying or doing something that, in hindsight, we regret. This is called an “amygdala hijack.” We can get really impulsive and foolish when the amygdala takes over. (By the way, the evening supervisor later apologized to me for her behavior saying that she was stressed out because of a personal situation.)

On top of all this, emotions are contagious. So if one person is emotionally hijacked, most likely others in the group will catch it, kind of like the flu. And very quickly, teamwork and collaboration deteriorate.

Whichever state a person is in has a huge impact on their capacity to do good work. In other words, if you or your employees spend most of your time in the reward state, you are more likely to feel engaged. If you spend most of your time in the avoid danger mode, you are most likely to feel disengaged.

All of the above is the bad news about our brain in the workplace and how our brain’s sensitivity to social threats can get in the way of fully engaging in our work. In my next blog, I’ll get to the good news! There are specific ways that managers can shape an environment that minimizes threats and maximizes rewards! More to come…

Nancy Anderson, RN, MA, is the SVP of Engagement Solutions for Align. In her role, she provides strategic leadership and supports development of solutions to help providers successfully build and sustain a culture of engagement.