HR & Management

How to get the most of your employees (using neuroscience)

5 min read

05 November 2015

The topic of wellbeing and happiness in the workplace is high on the agenda, as a happy workforce is a productive workforce. Here is how to get the most out of your employees using insights from neuroscience.

According to Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation, who has spent 15 years studying the topic, difference in productivity between happy and unhappy people at work can range from 10 per cent for non-complex repetitive tasks, to up to 40-50 per cent in service and creative industries. Hand-in-hand with increased productivity comes better employee engagement and staff retention.

The issue arises in defining exactly what is meant by staff happiness at work, and furthermore how employers can improve this and see it reflected in their bottom line.

Management models for improving wellbeing at work, based on empirical observation and staff surveys, are often used to define the interventions. And they can produce very varied results. 

These models include factors ranging from obvious needs like pay and office environment, to helping staff make a tangible difference and contribute to a higher purpose. It is unsurprising that bosses find difficulty isolating successful methods that will improve their staff’s happiness in a way that will also positively impact productivity, employee engagement and staff retention.

With the notable recent developments in neuroscience, it no longer has to be a guessing game. In a recently published book, The Fear-Free Organization, authors Paul Brown, Joan Kingsley and myself explain how our brains are made up of three parts, which have evolved over millions of years. 

Reptilian, mammalian and cognitive brain

The most primitive part is the brainstem, also called the reptilian brain. It controls basic functions like breathing and the body’s metabolism. After this, the mammalian brain evolved, this part is related to emotions, memory and behaviour. Lastly came the development of the cognitive brain, which is related to language, logic and decision-making.

Because of the way we have evolved, when danger is present, it is the mammalian part of the brain that responds the fastest, it is only afterwards that the cognitive brain digests everything that has happened. 

Consequently, everything we do is full of emotion shaped by memory, rather than logic – even in the workplace. 

Eight key emotions 

It is now agreed that there are eight emotions that define the way all people think, act and feel. Of these eight, five – the majority – are used to keep us safe from harm by alerting us of any danger. 

These emotions, known as the escape or avoidance emotions, are fear, anger, disgust, shame and sadness. 

These five emotions are survival instinct emotions, and are very easy to trigger, particularly fear. When a threat is present, the brain focuses on dealing with it with the aim of primary aim of surviving. The brain’s attention is focussed on dealing with the threat, and as a result, productivity declines, employees are less engaged and less likely to want to seek a new challenge. 

Two of the remaining emotions (excitement/joy and trust/love) are to do with attachment and having positive connections with things and people. When these emotions are engaged, the brain can focus exclusively on the task at hand, producing the very best results that it can. 

The last of the eight emotions is startle/surprise. This can result in either escape/avoidance emotions (startle/horror), or attachment emotions (surprise/delight). Creativity of a high quality can happen as a result of the surprise emotion.

Creating excitement at work

A happy workforce is one that is full of excitement about what needs to be done, joy at doing it, trust of leadership and teammates, and love – the sophisticated kind of love that creates intellectual and practical rigour, leaves us smarter and better people. 

All escape/avoidance emotions (fear in particular), act as important distractions in the workplace and limit the quality and quantity of what workers can produce. 

Companies should aim to trigger the attachment emotions for staff, which will result in a happier workforce, and will effectively improve productivity, employee engagement and staff retention. This is because, when the attachment emotions are fully in use in a person, their energy flows outwards and can be fully deployed in the strategic and operational goals of the organization.

Dr Sue Paterson is co-author of The Fear-free Organization: Vital Insights from Neuroscience to Transform Your Business Culture, published by Kogan Page (£29.99).