Employment Hero

Engaged Employees: A NeuroScientific Method

Want to know the science behind engaged employees? And how neuroscience can be used to gain greater insight into employee engagement at work? Well, you’ve come to the right place folks! Bet you didn’t know that Employment Hero are also top scientists as well, did you?

You can apply science to almost anything. The reason the sky is blue: science. How the internet works: science. Why you crave a McDonald’s when you’ve had one to many the night before: science. You get it…

The understanding of the human brain is rapidly expanding, thanks to new and novel imaging tools looking at how it functions in different situations. So it’s no surprise to find there is a neuroscientific perspective on everything from marketing to consciousness. And it’s becoming more apparent in the world of work, as employers are looking for new ways to keep increase the number of engaged employees in their business.

Even the legal fraternity is exploring its contribution as a marker for predicting crime. Although we need to exercise care in taking an extreme, reductionist view of the cause and effect, neuroscience can provide insights into the neurological drivers of behaviour in the workplace. In fact, HR professionals and HRIS systems vendors can learn a lot from neuroscience about how to design and implement strategies for leadership, culture and engagement.

What does engaged employees mean? 

Ok, before we get ahead of ourselves and deep dive into the science stuff. Let’s look at what the term ‘engaged employees’ actually means.

Employee engagement is defined as the heightened emotional connection an employee feels that influences a greater discretionary work effort. It covers values, cooperation and motivation, and results in a behaviour typically seen as going beyond what is required.

Neuroscience helps us understand engagement by offering insights and measures that can improve employee engagement across the systems and processes; specifically, by identifying the neural mechanisms that enhance and increase engagement, and the neural markers that might be used to more accurately measure engagement.

Now, it’s time for the good stuff. We break down engaged employees and retention into scientific methods. To give you a better understanding of how important it is for your business!

Tastes like chocolate 🍫

The neural basis of employee engagement is closely linked to the brain’s threat and reward function. When fully engaged, there is an activation of reward and self-regulation circuitry in your employee. Dopamine is released directly into the prefrontal cortex and associated regions. (Yes, we listened in Biology class!)

This positively affects a wide range of cognitive and emotional functions by increasing brain resources and functional connectivity.

When this system is activated, we receive feedback that the activity is good, rewarding and enjoyable. By further pursuing these activities, the mechanisms reinforce the pleasure of activity by releasing even more dopamine. In this reward state, we experience increased cognitive resources, a wider field of perceptual view and solve complex problems with insight and creativity and more actionable ideas.

So in order to gain engaged employees, from a neuroscientific standpoint, you want to increase your employee’s reward and recognition to increase their level of dopamine. Simple.

Smells like fear 😱

On the other hand, disengagement activates the threat circuitry. It includes anything that is an ‘avoid’ response, including fear, anxiety, lack of safety and depression. In this threat state, serotonin is released into neural pathways that activate the hypothalamus, triggering the fight or flight response.

Activation of threat circuitry has a profound effect on engagement and directs large amounts of brain resources to peripheral regions, and decreases the efficiency of attention that reduces working memory, narrows the field of view and offers a generally pessimistic attitude.

Un-engaged employees can be toxic to your business as they can have a negative influence on other members of staff.

The SCARF model for engaged employees 🧣

Neurochemical pathways in our networks are critical in reinforcing how we feel and consequently responding to the situations we are exposed to every day.  So the question is, what are the factors that create high levels of rewards or threats in an environment or system?

A well-documented model is the SCARF framework proposed by Dr David Rock. This model identifies five domains of threat or reward and is a useful framework for understanding and influencing our interactions with others. It is based on the principle that we minimise the threat, avoid a stimulus, and maximise rewards, approach stimulus.

These five domains are;

  • status, our relative importance to others
  • certainty, our ability to predict the future
  • autonomy, having choices and the degree of control we have over events
  • relatedness, the sense of trust and connection with others
  • fairness, the perception of fair and equitable transactions between people.

When all five domains are strongly contributing towards a reward, you experience a high level of engagement with an element of resilience to stress. This is often seen in inspirational leaders and visionaries who are also successful in engaging others.

Conversely, in compromised environments, you experience disengagement. Brain imaging and neurochemical analysis suggest that these negative neural responses exert similar responses to being threatened, hungry, sleep-deprived and in physical pain.

The Role of Goals

Neurochemical pathways play in critical role reinforcing how we feel and respond to everyday situations. It’s a game of threat and reward, with dopamine and serotonin playing chemical currency.  But it’s not always that simple; our individual disposition can also play a key role in how we embrace engagement, especially when we factor goals into the equation.

Goals give us endpoint. By setting a goal, we immediately focus our attention and redirect random neural firing patterns to pathways committed to the challenge. Furthermore, reinforcement sensitivity theory differentiates between reward and punishment sensitivity, which ultimately influences the emotions linked to our motivation to pursue a goal. Individuals with a reward disposition experience positive emotions such as hope and elation when pursuing a goal. Those with a punishment disposition are more likely to view goals from a fear-of-failure perspective.

Research suggests we gain more from reviewing completed goals; however, we are more motivated by what still needs to be done. In effect, achieving a goal is fulfilling, but focusing on a goal to pursue is engaging. This suggests that a state of change or arousal ensures more engagement than a state of balance. But again, things are not that simple when it comes to the brain. It turns out there is a relationship between arousal and engagement. Studies suggest that both insufficient and extreme levels of arousal yield the same result: poor performance. The trick is to hit that sweet spot between anxiety (too much arousal), and apathy (not enough arousal).

Get Engaged Employees In The Zone

Once we hit that sweet spot and identify a clear goal with immediate feedback, we find that we are totally lost in the activity; time appears to stand still and all our actions, our thoughts, our movements appear to flow effortlessly into another. There are no distractions; we feel deeply energised, we are in control, we are in the zone. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this the flow, and it’s in this deep engaged flow state that we are more creative, more productive and more satisfied. So it makes sense to pursue activities that promote flow states.

…in this deep engaged flow state that we are more creative, more productive and more satisfied.

This presents an interesting, if not, often ignored the challenge to technology vendors; that is, designing systems that offer immersion, heightened focus and engagement. This means developing solutions designed for the user, rather than the task. But it takes more than user interfaces. To successfully engage, workflows and processes need to offer unique goals and objectives to individuals and provide feedback to increase the effectiveness.

Gamify This!

Technology needs to connect employees to an end goal, creating a clear path to success. Equally important is an attention strategy that is capable of engaging and sustaining participation throughout the process.

Increasingly, vendors are turning to game mechanics to achieve this. Although reward & recognition is central to the HR space, ‘gamification’ is a relatively new concept. Effectively, it’s the principles and mechanisms that control behaviours through a system of incentives, feedback and rewards with a reasonably predictable outcome. Just like a game gets progressively harder, the process evolves overtime to make it more enjoyable. In short, it’s about maximising the release of dopamine.

From a technology perspective, it’s the addition of peer recognition, reward and feedback systems that keeps people involved for extended periods of time. Organisations of all sizes can benefit by using gamified systems to improve engagement, learning, flow performance, and facilitate change across the enterprise. When done correctly, gamification can inspire, motivate and help team members collaborate more effectively and more organically over time.

The mysteries of the brain are just unfolding. The last 20 years have uncovered fundamental insights into how our brain affects perception, emotion and conscious thought. These insights offer an opportunity for HR systems and processes to evolve into a new framework of engagement and ultimately performance. But to ensure success, technology vendors will have to change the way they think about HR delivery; they need to focus on the user and their experience. The good news is, it’s happening.

Book a demo today and see how Employment Hero can help you keep your employees motivated, and increase the number of engaged employees in your business. 

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