By Manie Bosman
A few days ago I was in a bookstore and just about to pay when the cashier – a young lady – was interrupted by a colleague demanding to know why she had left her lunch box out on the table in the back room where I presume the staff took their meals. The cashier blushed, mumbled some vague reply and then went along to make a complete hash of the transaction, punching the wrong keys and making more mistakes as she tried to rectify the mess.
What I was witnessing was the activation of a strong “withdraw” response in the hapless cashier’s brain – a neurological process where her brain’s limbic system registered a social “threat” (her colleague’s insensitive behaviour in front of me, the client), kicking her brain into survival mode and subsequently severely impairing her cognitive performance. Plainly put, her brain’s ability to understand, make decisions, solve problems and communicate was weakened as it tried to deal with what it perceived as an emotional threat.
How does this happen? As discussed in my previous post on neuroleadership, research in the field of neuroscience is showing that our brains react to perceived “threats” and “rewards” in the social environment in the same way and with the same intensity with which it reacts to physical threats (e.g. a predator, pain) and rewards (e.g. food, money). So when your brain perceives a social “reward” (e.g. receiving recognition) an automated positive “engage” circuitry is activated. On the other hand, when you are humiliated (a perceived “threat”, as in the case of the cashier), the same neural circuitry is activated as when you are confronted by a gang of thugs or a dangerous predator.
When a threat response is activated the brain allocates fewer resources to the prefrontal cortex (where most conscious thought takes place, hence making us a little ‘dumber’ for a while) as these resources are needed to activate and sustain other areas of the brain where automated “fight or flight” reactions are managed. The young cashier’s ability to perform the simple routine action of ringing up my purchase was thus disrupted as her stressed and undernourished prefrontal cortex simultaneously tried to work its way through the perceived social threat (being humiliated) and ringing up my purchase. In stead of automatically doing what she probably does a hundred times or more a day, she was now trying to concentrate on what she had to do and at the same time figure out how to deal with the rude behaviour of her colleague. With so much going on in her already undernourished prefrontal cortex, her brain simply ‘choked’, causing her to make a total mess of what she was trying to do.
The fact is, each day millions of similar scenario’s play out in banks, corporate offices, supermarkets, waiting rooms, at filling stations, in churches, holiday resorts, meeting rooms, on playgrounds, in mosques, on trains and buses, in military bases, lecture halls, movie theatres, sport stadiums, restaurants and wherever else people interact with each other. Our brains automatically react to perceived threats or rewards in the social environment, triggering either an “engage” or “disengage” neural response.
So, how can leaders and managers best make use of this new insight, triggering more “reward-engage” responses and avoiding “threat-disengage” responses? David Rock, author of the seminal Your Brain at Work and the man who coined the term “neuroleadership”, has devised the SCARF-model based on five social needs our human brains have (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness). Research in neuroscience have shown that it is these specific social needs which can activate the same reward or threat circuitries in our brains that physical rewards or threats can activate. Understanding that the human brain is primarily a social organ which perceives the workplace as a social environment can help leaders manage and facilitate these needs to the benefit of the individual and team:
Status refers to our social need for comparative importance, significance, respect, esteem, and a place in the social “pecking order”. Several studies even found that for our brains, social status (aka sociometric status – how we are viewed by our peers) and respect are more rewarding and important than money or wealth (socioeconomic status). Also interesting although perhaps not directly relevant are other studies which found status to be the most significant determinant of human longevity and health! In the workplace and other social environments typical threats to status would be someone with a superior attitude, receiving negative feedback, failing in a way that makes you feel inferior, receiving patronizing advice, being left out of the group, being humiliated (the teller again), and receiving disapproving performance reviews. The status reward response can be triggered by a promotion, being publicly acknowledged, winning, receiving positive feedback, learning a new skill which increases your standing or just being respected.
Certainty refers to the human brain’s yearning to know what will happen next. Our brains are constantly assessing patterns in the environment and it prefers familiar patterns which indicate safe and easily predictable outcomes. Unfamiliar patterns causes the brain to go into an alerted state, which burns more resources as it uses the energy-hungry prefrontal cortex to process and assess the unfamiliar pattern. Not only is this energy-sapping, it also causes stress and impairs our ability to make decisions, store and retrieve information, solve problems and think creatively. Threats to certainty can include telling half-truths (hiding information), inconsistency, radical change, job-insecurity, new experiences or places and meeting strangers. Reward-responses can be triggered by familiar places, consistency, feelings of security and stability.
Autonomy refers to the brain’s craving to feel that we have choices about what to do and not to do and that we have at least some level of control over our environment and circumstances. One study indicated that by simply allowing people to make some autonomous decisions we can increase their motivation and engagement by up to five times! In the workplace our need for autonomy can be threatened by micro management, working in teams with very strict guidelines and policies, authoritarian ‘command and control’ leadership, and inflexible rules. A reward-response can be triggered by participating in decision-making, organizing your own workflow or even choosing what to focus on, self-directed learning, and own time management.
Relatedness refers to our need to feel safe with other people and to feel that we are part of the group. This need also includes the brain’s constant assessment of people as either ‘friends’ or ‘foes’. Strangers, or anyone who looks or sounds different from those I perceive as ‘my people’ (e.g. different race or culture), could trigger a threat just because my brain perceives them as not being part of the group with whom I feel safe.
Some fascinating research by Naomi Eisenberger and her team at UCLA’s Department of Social Psychology showed that social rejection activates the same reaction in the brain as physical pain. She explains that when people feel unwanted or left out, they frequently describe their feelings with terms also used to describe physical pain, such as suffering from ‘hurt feelings’ or a ‘broken heart’. “Our research has shown that feeling socially excluded activates some of the same neural regions that are activated in response to physical pain, suggesting that social rejection may indeed be painful.” In other words, the brain experiences social pain in the same way as physical pain – it’s real and not just ‘emotional’. In the workplace and other social environments threats to our need for relatedness can be triggered when you are being ignored, perceive that you are being excluded from the group (even by just hearing a remark such as “everybody is tired of you always being late…”), rejection, starting to work with a new team, being alone among strangers, or working in a culture other than your own. Neural rewards could be triggered by feeling included, feeling trusted, friendship, pursuing common goals, being coaching (experiencing it as an investment being made in your future with the group).
Fairness refers to our need for fair exchanges. According to Rock, experiencing fairness or unfairness again activates the same network that registers real physical pain or pleasure. He points out that throughout history people had been willing to go to extreme lengths – including sacrificing their lives – to right injustice and unfairness. Perhaps less dramatic but equally significant for leaders are recent studies which have indicated that for your brain (assuming you’re not reading this while on trial for money laundering), fairness could be more important than money. Threats to our brains’ need for fairness can be triggered by broken promises (explicit or implicit promises), expectations not being met, different rules or standards for different people, and inconsistency. Rewards for fairness can be triggered by keeping commitments and promises, maintaining transparency, open communication, and admitting mistakes.
So what’s the bottom line here? Your brain and the brains of the people that you interact with each day are strongly influenced by how it perceives the social environment in which you operate. When it perceives a social threat (real or not) it automatically goes into the neurological version of your car’s ‘limp mode’ – functioning well below its best when needed to make decisions, remember, solve problems or collaborate with others. When it perceives a social reward the opposite happens – it goes into high engagement mode where it is best able to think creatively, plan, remember, memorize, solve problems, and communicate. In a world where employee engagement has probably become the greatest single success factor for any organization, leaders who are serious about accomplishing success cannot afford to ignore this.
- If this post had been helpful to you, you might also find value in reading “Neuroleadership: How Your Brain Fights for Social Survival in the Workplace”, “Proof from Neuroscience That Bad Leadership is Really BAD!” and “Proof from Neuroscience That Trusting People Makes Them More Trustworthy”. In my next post I will discuss how our brains experience a threat response more intensely than a reward and why leaders need to minimize threat responses in the workplace. Meanwhile, if you’re interested to boost your team or company’s leadership capabilities, please contact our team at the Strategic Leadership Institute.