What Neuroscience Reveals About Improving Employee Engagement

Maintaining a good roster of employees ultimately comes down to engagement. Accomplish that and everything else about managing your team falls into place. Some understanding of how the human brain functions can help.

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Maybe you’ve tried everything to motivate and engage your employees, but they always seem to let you down. Maybe you’ve thrown money at the problem, tried different hiring practices, or just lowered your standards and expectations.

You’re not alone. 

But if you’re ready to really see an increase in employee engagement, it’s time to get nerdy and look at what neuroscience tells us we should focus on.

1. Environment

Here’s a quick quiz. What do our brains prefer most? Is it:

  • Consistency/Predictability
  • Positivity
  • Money

Once our basic needs are met, the answer isn’t money. And across the board, it’s not positivity.

Above almost all else, what we really crave is consistency and predictability. Without those two things, we’re not able to bring our best to the table or fully engage in our work. 

Think about it: If your employees never know what to expect — whether that’s in terms of how their days will be scheduled, how much time they’ll have between jobs or what kind of mood their manager will be in on any given day — they’ll always be thinking about those unpredictable things rather than the important things, like the actual work they were hired to do.    

Neurologically speaking, an unpredictable and inconsistent environment means more than just a lack of focus or a loss of efficiency. The research shows that when we feel threatened by a lack of stability and predictability, our IQ actually drops. Our judgment as a whole drops, and we become less self-aware, less inventive, less creative, less connected and less useful.

Why is this?

Since the tribal days, we’ve been hard-wired to know that if we’re in an unpredictable or inconsistent environment (like an open savanna filled with predators), we have to be in fight-or-flight mode — especially if we don’t have the support of social resources (like our tribe). 

Survival is really all we can focus on, and in that state of mind, there’s no room for creativity, focus or game-changing performance. Our metabolic energy is tied up in surviving, not thriving.

That’s why creating a consistent and predictable work environment is key to increasing employee engagement and encouraging productivity and better performance. Without the right environment, all the positivity and money in the world won’t get you the results you want from your team.

2. Leadership

In decades past, we hired and fired on engagement and productivity alone. If an employee was let go, it was because they failed us, right?

Well, actually, we kind of got it wrong.

Research from those studying the connection between leadership and employee engagement has revealed that levels of engagement are directly tied to the leader, not the employee.

In other words, if we want to keep employees engaged, it’s time to look at ourselves as leaders. Are we boosting or discouraging engagement? What are we doing to create a consistent and predictable environment where employees feel supported and safe? Are we mercurial leaders who are completely different depending on our day or mood? Are we acknowledging a job well done, or do we only acknowledge the mistakes that are being made?

In a recent "Brainfluence" podcast interview with Roger Dooley, Don Rheem, author of Thrive by Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures, brought up an employee who said:

“I did this job 99 times perfectly. The one time I made a mistake was the only time my manager showed up, and it was to berate me. Where was my manager the 99 times I did it right?” 

Could this have been one of your employees?

If the only recognition you’re giving your employees is negative, how inspired do you think they will be to bring their best, day in and day out? 

The truth is, their motivation won’t be to go above and beyond, because you’ll never notice that. Their real motivation will be to not mess it up. Obviously, an employee in that state of mind is never going to be fully engaged to do their best work.

We All Want the Same Thing

When we started our company, Spark Marketer, we set out to create the type of workplace we would want to work in, without any knowledge of these neuroscience findings. Thankfully, that’s benefited us and allowed us to attract and retain good employees who are engaged and care about the work they’re doing. 

How did it work so well for us? Because it turns out that the type of environment we crave is the type of environment all of us crave — one that’s predictable, safe and consistent. 

That doesn’t mean our employees don’t have to perform. In fact, one of the other things your employees are craving is clarity. By letting them know exactly what’s expected of them and when, you’re working to create a more consistent and predictable environment where they can fully engage and thrive. You’re eliminating the “fear of the unknown.”

So when we say “safe,” we don’t mean “free of consequences.” There’s a difference. 

Now for the good news and the bad news: Employee engagement is your responsibility, not the responsibility of your employees. 

That might sound like mostly bad news, but it’s not.

Knowing you are the one who gets to determine how engaged your employees will be should be a bit of a relief. Because it means that just by creating an environment that’s predictable and consistent and by being a predictable, consistent, and supportive leader, you’re setting your employees up for success and giving them what they need to really drill down and reach new levels of productivity and performance.

About the Authors

Carter Harkins and Taylor Hill are the co-founders of Spark Marketer, a Nashville, Tennessee-based digital marketing company that works primarily with service businesses. They’re also the co-hosts of the "Blue Collar Proud (BCP) Show," a podcast that’s all about having and living the blue-collar dream, and the co-authors of the book, Blue Collar Proud: 10 Principles for Building a Kickass Business You Love. They're also co-creators of the award-winning app, Closing Commander, which helps contractors close more estimates effortlessly. Both regularly speak at service industry trade shows and conferences across the nation. Visit www.facebook.com/sparkmarketerwww.facebook.com/bcpshowwww.facebook.com/groups/bluecollarproudnation, or facebook.com/closingcommander.



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