Be brain-savvy: follow the neuroscience for better employee engagement

Be brain-savvy: follow the neuroscience for better employee engagement

Engaged employees are better for business, but do you know the science behind the theory? Applying neuroscience – the study of how the brain works – can give us some really useful pointers for more effective engagement strategies.

We’ve written before about how high engagement is good for both individuals and businesses. The key elements of engagement – having a strong connection with your work and colleagues, making a genuine contribution, and having chances to learn – all result in higher productivity, better-quality products or service, and increased profitability. So how does this work at brain level? Cue Jennifer Aniston’s seminal L’Oréal ad:

“Here comes the science bit – concentrate!”

While there’s no single system in the brain that ensures people are engaged, the key is a hormone called oxytocin. One of the ‘feel good’ hormones, oxytocin does three things that can help us to feel more engaged at work:

• It builds trust and attachment between individuals which reduces stress. It’s also the hormone that destresses you when pet a dog and – wait for it – the hormone associated with falling in love.

• It inhibits the amygdala – the part of the brain that processes fear and anxiety.

• It contributes to group bonding by increasing trust and generosity and increasing positive attitudes.

The big question then is how can we increase employee oxytocin levels? Recent research shows that building trust and purpose-led work are both potent oxytocin stimuli. Experiments show that teams with both high trust and high purpose blew away the competition (1).

Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies report:
• 74% less stress
• 106% more energy at work
• 50% higher productivity
• 13% fewer sick days
• 76% more engagement
• 29% more satisfaction with their lives
• 40% less burnout.
And we’d all like some of that.

Putting neuroscience to work

In practical terms, this means building trust, embracing purpose, and creating a positive culture that avoids stress and threat. Here are a few practical ways to walk the talk.

Give continuous constructive feedback – regular feedback builds trust by helping your employees feel valued and enabling regular improvement and growth. It also removes the threat and fear of the one-off isolated annual review which can make employees feel threatened and defensive.

Recognise achievement – the neuroscience shows that recognition is particularly effective at building trust when it’s immediate, personal and comes from your peers. Public recognition is important too and has the added bonus of inspiring others to aim high.

Build a community that communicates – enabling strong, supportive relationships across your business is key to working together with purpose. In-person connections are ideal wherever possible, but ensuring employees have easily accessible platforms to share and connect is a simple way to start. Work hard at creating networks, communicating your vision and values and sharing success stories. Be inclusive and keep employees in the loop about where the business is heading.

Invest in personal growth – our brains are wired to learn, to try to make sense of our world and ourselves. Build in learning and development opportunities for every employee through regular training and upskilling. Set attainable challenges, agree long-term goals and encourage a culture of self-improvement.

Offer the right rewards – money isn’t everything when it comes to motivation, but a selection of incentives, rewards and benefits carefully chosen to match your employees’ lives and priorities can help develop a positive attitude at work. Benefits such as healthcare, childcare packages, cycle to work plans and wellbeing programmes can all help to build a bond of trust.

Strange but true: getting your head around hormones really could reap benefits. Creating a work environment that elicits trust and a sense of purpose stimulates oxytocin production, which in turn leads to better engaged, more productive and successful businesses. We’d like to claim that it can also lead to more romance in the office, but maybe that would be a step too far.