Eight Steps from Neuroscience that Will Improve Employee Engagement and Productivity!

Human brain, conceptual computer artwork

Researchers, such as Gallop, have demonstrated the economic benefits of improving employee engagement, including higher productivity, better quality products and increased profitability.[i] Since the early 2000s, however, the empirical evidence has shown that the overall level of employee engagement in the United States, and around the world, has not increased.

While many leaders believe in its benefits, they seem to be at a loss or are unwilling to take the necessary steps to increase employee engagement. Many managers turn instead to easy-to-implement perks, such as breakfast bars and bring-your-dog to-work-days. Unfortunately, they often have few benefits to show after the initial excitement has passed.

Now there are solid findings from neuroscience that identify the management behaviors that drive employee engagement and eight steps companies can take to increase it. These findings match the recommendations of some of the original researchers of the topic, from over 40 years ago.

Paul J. Zak, a recognized expert in oxytocin, has done neuroscience research showing that having a sense of higher purpose stimulates oxytocin production, as does trust.[ii] Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the brain that creates happiness. Trust and purpose mutually reinforce each other, providing a mechanism for extended oxytocin release. Paul J. Zak is a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University and founding director of the Center of Neuroeconomic Studies. He is the author of Trust Factor: The Science of Creating High-Performing Companies. (AMACOM, 2017).

Professor Zak explains in the January-February edition of the Harvard Business Review that he has identified eight management behaviors that foster trust.[iii]  He maintains that these behaviors are measurable and can be managed to improve performance. The following are the steps Professor Zak recommends companies can take to create these behaviors within their organizations.

  1. Recognize excellence. Neuroscience shows that employee recognition has the greatest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, and when it is tangible, unexpected, personal, and public. This is often one of the most overlooked and easiest ways companies can improve trust.
  2. Induce “challenge stress.” When a manager assigns a team a difficult but achievable job, the moderate stress of the task releases neurochemicals, including oxytocin and adrenocorticotropin, which intensifies peoples’ focus and strengthens social connections. When team members need to work together to reach a goal, brain activity coordinates their behaviors efficiently. But, this works only if challenges are attainable and have a concrete end point. Vague or impossible goals cause people to give up before they even start.
  3. Give people discretion in how they do their work. Once employees are trained, allow them, whenever possible, to manage people and execute projects in their own way. Being trusted to figure things out is a big motivator.
  4. Enable job crafting. When companies trust employees to choose which projects they’ll work on, people focus their energies on what they care about most.
  5. Share information broadly. Only 40% of employees report that they are well informed about their company’s goals, strategies and tactics. This uncertainty about the company’s direction leads to chronic stress, which inhibits the release of oxytocin and undermines teamwork. Openness is the antidote. This is another behavior that can be easily improved with great benefit.
  6. Intentionally build relationships. The brain network that oxytocin activates is evolutionarily old. This means that the trust and sociality that oxytocin enables are deeply embedded in our nature. Yet at work, we often get the message that we should focus on completing tasks, not on making friends. Neuroscience experiments by Professor Zak’s lab have shown that when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves. In addition to managers expressing an interest in the personal well-being and success of their employees, companies may help employees at work build social connections by sponsoring lunches, after-work parties, and team-building activities.
  7. Facilitate whole-person growth. High-trust workplaces help people develop personally as well as professionally. Acquiring new work skills isn’t enough. If you are not growing as a human being, your performance will suffer.
  8. Show vulnerability. Leaders in high-trust work places demonstrate asking for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things. Asking for help stimulates oxytocin production in others, increasing trust and cooperation.

Professor Zak reports that the effect of trust on self-reported work performance is powerful. For example, companies scoring in the top quartile of trust received 106% more energy from their workforces, 76% more engagement, and 50% more productivity than firms in the bottom quartile[iv].

Professor Zak’s research matches the guidance of earlier researchers about what really drives higher commitment, energy, and performance at work, such as Frederick Herzberg in his Motivation-Hygiene Theory and David Maslow and his Hierarchy of Needs.

Does your organization believe in the importance of purpose and trust to drive higher employee engagement and productivity? Join the conversation.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults on innovation, talent management, developing agile leaders and teams, and other strategic initiatives. Questions? Please e-mail Victor at victorassad6@gmail.com or visit www.victorhrconsultant.com. For innovation visit www.innovationone.io.

[i] Gallup. State of the Global Workplace Report, 2013.

[ii] Paul J. Zak (Jan-Feb., 2017) “The Neuroscience of Trust: Management Behaviors that Foster Employee Engagement,” The Harvard Business Review.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

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