Your Brain at Work

Brain at WorkMost of us view work as a kind of economic transaction: people exchange labor for financial compensation. Depending on the job, increased quantity of labor (number of hours) or increased quality of labor (bonus or promotion) results in increased compensation. However, there is an increasing amount of research that shows that we are motivated not so much by money as by our social needs for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

While people sometimes use the word ‘family’ to describe their work colleagues, neuroscience research makes it clear that our brains experience the workplace as a social system. Social interactions often decide whether an employee stays at a company; positive reinforcement from our boss or peers can improve our mood for an entire day. In contrast, lack of social interaction with peers and a non-supportive or critical environment are often cited as the primary reasons for leaving a job.

In an article called “Managing with the Brain in Mind,” David Rock explores the implications to leaders of treating the workplace as a social system. Employees who feel betrayed or unrecognized – such as those that are reprimanded, given a pay cut, or asked to work on an assignment that they deem beneath them – experience it as a powerful neural shock. This experience can be as painful as a physical blow.

While employees learn to temper their reactions to this blow and some even rationalize the situation, they also limit their commitment levels and reduce their engagement. In Rock’s words:

They become purely transactional employees, reluctant to give more of themselves to the company, because the social context stands in their way.

The science shows that the perception of threats always trumps the lure of rewards. The threat response is more immediate and biologically demands attention. Once a threat has occurred, it takes a long time to dispel – this explains why bad traffic on the morning commute can impact your mood and your performance for the rest of the day.

The impact on leadership is wide-sweeping since almost anything can affect employees’ feelings of status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness. Here are three examples:

  1. If a leader is confident, it gives employees a feeling of safety, even in uncertain times.  This makes it more likely that employees will focus on their work, leading to improved performance.
  2. In critical or time-sensitive situations, leaders often adopt a hands-on style in the hope of increasing the odds of success.  If a leader recognizes that micro-managing threatens status and autonomy, they are more likely to allow employees to learn through their own mistakes.
  3. In an attempt to appear more “presidential”, some leaders repress their emotions and become staged.  If a leader understands that people equate lack of emotion as a threat response, they are more likely to be open and genuine.

We’ve always known that good leaders have to be more than smart; they have to have people skills as well. Neuroscience provides all of us hard data for the value of these soft skills. Neuroscience suggests that the best leaders are the ones that create an atmosphere that support status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness.

Neuroscience reminds us to always wear this SCARF.

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3 Responses to Your Brain at Work

  1. Cindy Yu April 25, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    I’d love to see how this also ties into ownership of one’s work and the pride associated with the result – that goes beyond social interaction or social order within the company. And this is an area where people also look to leaders to show by example. I personally believe this brings more value to one’s measure of success than money or status or promotion.

  2. Arun Krishnaswamy April 29, 2011 at 1:02 am #

    Very true, Jonathan. Similar observations underly behavioral economics and motivational theory: that a loss of $100 is more painful than a gain of $100. Or ten gains of $10 is more pleasurable than a single $100. Helps us in designing better promotions. No different in the workplace : we are after all dealing with people. I see SCARF boiled into 1 word: MEANING. Meaning is a personal thing but thrives in a SCARF environment. The trick of effective leadership is to use inspiration (vs fear) to create a virtuous spiral of more meaningful roles and workplace experiences. And a culture that is not risk-averse to failure. A recent good book I read in this context is Meaning Inc. by Gurnek Bains.

  3. Arun Ranganath April 29, 2011 at 10:32 am #

    If leaders behave in a way that they know everything under the sun and have an attitutde that their reportees are a bunch of clueless slaves, then the very same reportees have enough options to leave such a leader and find alternative. We no longer live in a world where people are married to organizations for 30 years. While professional contributions may not be appreciated enough,any indication of treating employees in a not so professional way is a sure indicator of losing the person from the team. And this is true across profiles and not limited to specific functions or departments or job roles.

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