Brain research is putting a fresh spin on how social interaction at work impacts performance, motivation, innovation and morale. It is now known, for example, that physical pain and social pain produce similar brain responses. Workers who feel betrayed or unrecognized at work experience an emotion as powerful and painful as a physical blow. When employees feel threatened at work (by a reprimand, a pay cut, or a poor assignment) it can trigger a powerful neural response and can alter their commitment and engagement to their work. An article in in the autumn issue of strategy + business—“Managing with the Brain in Mind” by David Rock—explains the challenges that neural reactions present to managers and offers suggestions for avoiding trigging the threat response in employees.
Research has discovered five qualities that enable employees and managers to minimize the threat response and trigger the reward response instead. They are: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. Here are some key points about each of these qualities:
Status – a core concern of all human beings. We constantly assess how social encounters at work enhance or diminish our status. This means that performance reviews, for example, can trigger a threat response because they interfere with one’s status. Self-assessments can avoid that problem. Likewise, placing a value on all employees rather than valuing those by rank and money can also eliminate a threat to status.
Certainty – when you encounter a familiar situation your brain conserves energy. On the other hand, your brain perceives uncertainty as an error, gap or tension. So not knowing what will happen is “profoundly debilitating,” says David Rock, because it requires extra neural energy. This in turn “diminishes memory, undermines performance, and disengages people from the present,” adds Rock. Mild uncertainty is fine, the author explains, it’s when it gets out of hand that “people panic and make bad decisions.” Confident leaders can help build certainty by sharing information, such as business plans, and by explaining the reasons for major changes, such as reorganizations or layoffs. “Transparent practices are the foundation on which the perception of certainty rests,” says Rock.
Autonomy – a perception of reduced autonomy can generate a threat response. Studies show that as long as people feel they can execute their own decisions without excessive oversight, their stress remains under control. Giving employees options over things like their schedules and work hours provides a less stressful environment.
Relatedness – in the brain the ability to feel trust and empathy about others is influenced by whether they are seen to be part of the same social group. If a new person is perceived as different, it generates uncomfortable feelings. “Teams of diverse people cannot be thrown together,” says Rock. Instead they need time and repeated social interaction to get comfortable with each other. Only then will the brain recognize these former strangers as friends. Once people make a strong social connection their brain actually secretes a hormone called oxytocin when in the company of that individual.
Fairness – the perception that an event has been unfair sets off feelings of hostility and undermines trust. “The cognitive need for fairness is so strong that some people are willing to fight and die for causes they believe are just – or commit themselves wholeheartedly to an organization they recognize as fair,” says Rock. Leaders who play favorites can trigger a threat response in those left outside the privileged circle. Transparency helps to alleviate concerns with unfairness.
The upshot of this brain research is that people cannot do their best when they are in a heightened threat state. By adopting more inclusive and transparent policies, managers can help to alleviate these negative states of mind that undermine good decision making, collaboration and productivity. Financial rewards are fine, but they won’t work if people’s social needs are unmet.