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

For reasons unknown to me, I am absolutely fascinated by the human brain. Not so much the complexities of the brain’s anatomy and physiology, but rather its predispositions and proclivities, how it triggers emotions and influences our behaviors, and ultimately how it impacts our performance in the workplace. In fact, the incredible information now available about how our brain functions is changing our understanding about leadership and how to create an engaging workplace.

Over my next several blogs, I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned about the intriguing inner workings of our brain and how we can use this understanding to more effectively improve employee engagement in our organizations. In this first post, let me set the stage with a basic understanding of brain realities.

The human brain is built for SURVIVAL. Therefore, our brains are inherently wired to:

  • Minimize or move away from threats and avoid danger
  • Maximize rewards

These core motivations drive our emotions and ultimately our behavior.

The wiring of our brain reflects the fact that our early ancestors were constantly exposed to numerous physical threats such as wild animals and unfriendly tribes. They had to constantly be aware of potential dangers and were more likely to survive if they were hyper-vigilant to these vulnerabilities. Therefore the brain developed the capacity and proclivity to constantly stay very alert to potential threats. Survival also depended on things like finding food, bonding with others and being able to depend on other people in the village. Although our ancestors’ day-to-day lives were very different from ours today, our brain is still wired to move away from perceived danger and move towards perceived rewards.

The “Uh-Oh” center of the brain

While I won’t go deeply into brain anatomy and physiology (thankfully!), there is a particular part of our brain that I’d like to mention because it has such an important impact on our topic… the amygdala.

The amygdala is a structure that sits in the middle of our brain, in what is called the limbic system or emotional center of our brain. It assesses the emotional value of all the stimuli that our senses pick up. Every moment, the amygdala is constantly scanning all sensory information and deciding if it’s either good for us, or bad for us.

  • Is this a threat? Do I need to get out of here fast? Do I need to fight for my life (or my dignity, status or reputation)?
  • Is this safe? Is there something good here for me? Is this something pleasurable?

This evaluation happens quickly, automatically and sub-consciously.

Let’s apply this to a workplace example: Attending a meeting. When you walk into the meeting room, your amygdala is automatically scanning to see whether there is anything that might pose a threat to you. If it appears that you are safe and there is a potential reward, your reaction is to move toward, or open up to, the setting or experience. A reward could be anything from recognizing that all the people in the room are trusted, friendly colleagues, to seeing a plate of cookies in the middle of the table available for you to eat.

On the other hand, when you experience a threat, your body gives signals to move away from the threat. And mind you, these aren’t the physical threats that our ancestors faced. Rather, these are “social” threats. Things like not knowing or recognizing any of the other meeting attendees, seeing  senior executives or Board members in the room with frowns on their faces, or an uncertainty about why you’ve been called to the meeting in the first place! In these situations you may feel your heart beating faster, palms getting sweaty and mouth becoming dry.

Although we don’t have to worry so much about physical threats in the workplace, there are numerous “social” threats that may be present. And employees are very in-tune to these potential threats:

  • Can I trust my boss?
  • Does my boss treat me fairly?
  • Am I accepted here?
  • Does my boss have my back? Will he/she help me be successful?
  • Do I really matter here? Does anyone care that I’m here or care about what I’m doing?

When these social needs are not met, powerful emotions such as fear, anxiety, mistrust, or defensiveness are triggered, creating an environment that fosters disengagement.

Engagement is emotional

Why does it matter how our brains are wired? Because when it comes right down to it, engagement is an emotional experience that is heightened when we feel rewarded and diminished when we feel threatened. When threat responses are on high alert, employees’ cognitive resources are narrowed to focus on the perceived threat, which means they are ultimately operating in a way that is using far less of their full potential.

You can’t force employees to feel engaged. Engagement is cultivated when employees feel their work is meaningful. Engagement flourishes when employees feel valued, supported and connected. And when these needs are met, employees have the increased cognitive resources for caring, collaborating, problem solving and creativity. This kind of environment motivates employees to give their best.

In my subsequent posts, I’ll share how managers, through their behaviors and day-to-day practices, can minimize threats and maximize rewards to shape a culture of engagement.

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.