Structuring Rewards and Engaging People - post #3 of 4

Let us briefly explore what brain science has to say about the age-old problem of

keeping people happy at work. “Engagement” is a term that has lost its currency, a notion cheapened by recurrent efforts to intensively farm it in big companies. Today there are as many and varied definitions and interpretations of engagement as there are organizations and industries and the individuals who inhabit them. Measuring engagement is also fraught with difficulty. Rather than answering the “what” and “how” questions, let us look at the “why”.

In a career coaching context, professional experience testifies to bad relationships with managers or colleagues as a primary driver of career dissatisfaction, not to problems with functional roles.

The quality of relationship defines our fundamental sense of purpose and well-being at work.

The fact that many individuals at work subsist within highly unsatisfactory relationships attests only to the human capacity to survive under continuous threat, even when the costs in productivity and health are huge.


The Social Brain

Emotions are everything. We have highlighted the point that the limbic brain assesses events in terms of threat and reward or, behaviourally, avoids or attaches emotionally to events as they happen. What happens next seems to follow a mysterious process, as the diagram below, adapted by Professor Paul Brown, illustrates so well:

You can get an idea from this of how events are processed. The profoundly social and emotional nature of the brain indicates that performance will be fundamentally affected by emotional processing of any event and especially the state of relationship between people involved. These feelings are what create behaviours and it is these behaviours which drive our performance at work. The process described above happens below the threshold of consciousness, in about 80 milliseconds. It takes 240 milliseconds to get it up into conscious awareness. By that time the brain has already decided what actions it is going to provoke.


Efforts to engage are missing the target

We want engaged workforces because it has some commercial benefit, right? But efforts to improve cultures, whether through leadership programs, talent strategies, training, communications, new rules, bonuses, employee value propositions or off-sites, are nothing if the relationship between person A and person B on the ground does not improve. And relationships improve only if behaviour changes and is reliable.

But behavioural change requires physical change to the brain by creating neural growth that supports new behaviours, and neglecting neural pathways that entrench unwanted behaviours, such that they start to wither away.

This is a different proposition to much HR intervention nowadays that overly focuses on fostering engagement through “process” to try to get people to play nice at work. That is a phoney process and the people taking part usually know it because it does not ‘ring true’. So a paradoxical effect is produced, which is to lower the trust upon which effective relationship relies. It might keep HR busy but it will not improve organizational performance.

Relationship difficulties occur at the individual level because we are not great at seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.

The brain will do all it can to resist change to existing neural patterning and makes this process well-nigh impossible unless the person feels safe to try out different ways of interacting with others. It explains why so many well-meant change initiatives fail. If done well, a coaching culture works so much better by allowing someone to bring to awareness the non-conscious habitual emotions driving their existing behaviours, model different ones and practice new ways of interacting that over time “hardwire”, create new neural pathways, and become normal.


Giving people ownership is key to this. Telling them what to do just does not seem to work any longer. When people solve things themselves, the brain makes patterns and emits a rush of dopamine.

The reward response from real ownership of tasks can be stronger than a bonus. In these cash-strapped times, that should be of serious interest.

You first

Leadership styles must move from command and control to collaboration. Your people will give of their best under optimal conditions of each domain of SCARF (Rock, 2007), a model for collaborating with and influencing others through managing awareness of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. These five domains either activate reward or threat responses in the limbic system and determine neural circuitry that drives behaviour. Provided you help maintain an individual’s balances within the five domains of SCARF, such approaches deliver higher performance from staff and help find this elusive thing called “engagement”. It requires trust to flow from the top down, so if leaders are not engaged with engaging, the whole thing will not get off the ground.


This article is reproduced by kind permission of James Parsons, who started his career on the trading floor of large financial institutions in the City of London. He is now a leadership coach and a Partner with Strengths Unleashed.