Employee engagement involves the interplay between three factors: cognitive commitment (purpose), emotional attachment (trust), and the resulting behavioural outcomes (discretionary effort and interest in the results).
There is evidence that drivers of engagement include pride in one’s company and an employee’s relationship with his/her manager. These are well-researched factors which impact engagement and it is these drivers that you can use to improve the engagement of employees. The Conference Board found that across all the studies reviewed, and for all locations and age groups, there was agreement that the relationship with the immediate line manager is the strongest of all drivers of employee engagement. So focusing on this relationship potentially gives the best return.
Our research would also suggest that having leaders who work in a brain-savvy way results in better business outcomes. Good leaders create engaged employees who in turn produce business results.
Engagement is not a neurological construct in the brain but a number of aspects do have identifiable brain based processes which differ based on how employees are treated:
There has been lots of psychological research on the impact of in-groups, most of it relating to gender, racial and stereotype bias. Neuroscience is now beginning to break down the sequence of processes in the brain that create this kind of bias, and the impact they can have on decision-making, social connection and the performance of groups that need to work together.
How our brain creates an in-group
One of the ways our brain manages the vast amounts of data it needs to process every day is by putting things into categories. As Gordon Allport, one of the founders of modern psychology, said: “The human mind must think with the aid of categories.” This categorisation in turn influences the way we judge things. And when it comes to people and groups that can either help people feel engaged or destroy it.
It takes just 200 milliseconds to categorise a new face by sex and race. And after that we organise them into other categories. The amygdala is giving a completely unconscious quick-and-dirty assessment of whether the new person is a threat. The top level of categorisation is in-group or out-group. In-group is friend rather than foe, usually “like me” rather than “different to me.” We store broad representations for our different categories, says David Amodio of New York University.
That first categorisation affects our subsequent processing. We will spend longer looking at the faces of people in our in-group. It will affect how we interpret their bodily movements and how much empathy we have for them in a painful situation.
Once we have categorised, we link to other stored information about that category: how similar they are to us, what characterises them, whether these characteristics are positive or negative. These stored characteristic and category links are built up over time, through socialisation and culture. They create the expectations we have of people – they’re the lens we see them through.
The core social motivation of categorisation is sharing social understanding, getting along in the group and controlling socially different behaviour, which all serves to build trust within the group. So, categorising people into groups can be useful for our long-term safety, but it can also have consequences.
A study by the University of Missouri has shown that the effect of in-group identification becomes even more intense when people are threatened. People turn to their in-group when they feel at risk of some type of harm. The threat could be anything from negative feedback to redundancies to competition for budget or even the sense that the boss favours one part of the work unit over other parts.
The researchers asked participants to complete a perceptual decision-making task while being monitored in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner. During the task they were exposed to the judgements about them from both in-group and out-group members; some positive others negative.
This research showed that being part of the in-group makes you feel good and you will be more able to understand the perspective of your in-group colleagues and find it difficult to put yourself into the shoes of people in another group. The implication is that we are less receptive to feedback from people not in our group, and find it difficult to adopt their perspective.
Having common goals and a common purpose enhances in-group connection and sense of safety and wellbeing.
Matt Lieberman a neuroscientist at UCLA has studied why we have two systems for understanding others: the mirror neuron system and the medial prefrontal cortex or default system. What he found was the two systems have slightly different jobs. Mirror neurons help us to understand how and what someone is doing. The default system helps us understand why. We activate this system whenever we are not involved in cognitive or task type activity. It comes on like a reflex. But when we are busy, in the habit of forcing on analytical, cognitive tasks we may be unaware of the signals the default system is sending. They tend to presented as intuition or a nudge: that fleeting sense of concern about what the leader is saying, the discomfort registered on someone’s face. Other research has found that a clear purpose helps people to overcome impulsive behaviour and stay focused on goals. In engagement a clear purpose shared with an in-groups provides a sense of reward in the brain and helps people to push past threat. Combining this with options about how employees meet shared goals strengths a sense of reward even more.
We have a natural bias to notice threat and negative emotions. This threat or negativity bias kept us alive and even today it stops us from walking under a bus, taking too much risk or getting into fights, physical or verbal, with someone more powerful than us.
There is less agreement, and less written about positive emotions. When we think about positive emotions like joy, happiness, and gratitude they may seem to have little purpose other than to balance out the negative. But the Broaden and Build theory developed by Barbara Fredrickson is relevant to our thinking on engagement.
When you experience a positive emotion it can be rather fleeting and it tends not to come with the same urge to take action (an action urge in the jargon) as a negative emotion does. Try this short exercise. Remember a time when you were angry or scared. Notice how it feels in your body and the urge you have. It is probably to stop thinking about the emotion or to get away and do something else. OK shake that off. Now think about something positive a lovely sunny day or your child smiling or whatever works for you. Again notice the physical feelings and the action urge. If you are feeling joy it may lead you to be playful if gratitude to want to return the help.
Fredrickson says we have positive emotions because they build action urges to connect with others, and to be open to learning. Her theory also says that whilst they are fleeting they build and this building creates resilience and makes us more resourceful.
Studies by Fredrickson and others have shown that people in a positive mood notice the “the big picture,” they are more open to new ideas and learning, solve more problems through insight and make more connections across bits of information. Fredrickson uses the metaphor that positive emotions are a bit like vegetables; you know eating greens once a month won’t do much for your health. You need your five a day. It is the same with positive emotions, you need to have a regular dose and you need to tip the balance of the negativity bias by making sure you notice the positive and saver it. In business this involves going out of our way to capture and amplify the positive. Like celebrating small successes, getting people to help each other and noticing what is going well. All important factors in bonding people and creating engagement and purpose for the job.
Trust has been shown to be a core component of employee engagement by many studies, including the Edelman Trust Barometer. HR are often the key players in developing policy and custodians of the cultural norms that will promote or inhibit trust.
Much of the work on trust has been carried out by neuro-economist Paul Zak at California’s Claremont Graduate University. Zak has found that countries characterised by high levels of trust between citizens are also the most economically successful. And it is feasible that this applies to businesses too.
Zak’s focus is on oxytocin, the neuromodulator hormone commonly associated with mother and child bonding. The studies carried out by Zak and his colleagues were designed to understand how the human brain determines when or when not to trust someone.
Participants took part in the Trust Game designed to study individuals’ propensity to be trusting and to be trustworthy, and their oxytocin levels were monitored throughout. The researchers found that when participants felt they were trusted, their brains responded by producing oxytocin, and when participants were shown increased levels of trust their brain produced even more oxytocin.
Most significant however, was the finding that the rise in oxytocin levels resulted in participants behaving in a more trustworthy way. The researchers conclude that people who feel trusted become more trustworthy as a result of increased oxytocin levels in their brain, leading Zak to call oxytocin “the trust molecule.”
So engagement is more likely when people are connected with an in-group, have a clear purpose and autonomy to carry out their role, feel positive about what they are doing and trust those they work with. But how does this translate to survey results?
Behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman has shown that we perceive things in two ways: as the “experiencing self” and as the “remembering self.” The experiencing self makes assessments in the moment, but the remembering self creates a coherent story about events in retrospect. The remembering self is a storyteller and creates a story which becomes our memory: this is what we get to keep from our experience.
Kahneman says the remembering self is helping us to make decisions going forward and, ultimately, determining how satisfied we are with our lives. We don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences. Even when we think about the future, we don’t think of our future normally as experiences. We think of our future as anticipated memories.
The experiencing and remembering selves act as two different entities, says Kahneman, and this can cause confusion. The remembering self keeps score, maintains the structure of our life and is the one that makes decisions based on the memory we create from an experience.
If something bad happens at the end of an event it ruins the memory of the experience. So, for example, if we are engaged in a highly successful project, say to design and launch a new HR process: the team works well together, the roll out goes brilliantly but the final debrief ends with the CEO noticing a couple of small things that could have gone better the memory of the whole project will be tainted by those last few criticisms. For the remembering self the comments are integrated into the project memory.
Kahneman says the ending is a critical part of every event. An experiment asked people undergoing a medical procedure to report on their pain every 60 seconds. Those patients who experienced more pain at the end of the operation later reported worse overall pain than they had in fact reported during the procedure.
We can use this insight to great effect in our working lives by ensuring that any bad news is delivered at the beginning of a presentation, and ensure positive memories by making sure good things happen at the end of an event.
Based on Kahneman hypothesis a sense of happiness or engagement can be very different depending on whether we are recording an experience, or how someone thinks about the experience – their memory of it. This has important implications for HR policies on engagement. Your survey is almost certainly collecting data on the memory not the experience of engagement. There are apps that can help you to collect data on what people are experiencing in the moment, and using these types of measure may give you very different results from surveys which ask about the past especially if there were negative events taking place at the end of the period you are surveying.
Also the differences between the experiencing and remembering self-influences how people define what’s important for them at work. In the moment, people will usually say social connection and relationships; when asked to think back on what is important to them, they will say money. We may well be satisfying memory rather than experience, and the significance for HR policy is profound.
If we could link these experienced and remembered assessments better, it’s possible that organisations could be more effective at meeting employees’ real needs and designing more effective policies.
Of course, collecting immediate data recording the in-the-moment experience of your engagement programme might make you feel better if it returns more positive scores. But it won’t alter the effectiveness of the programme unless you can establish a better match between your participants’ experiencing and remembering selves.
Based on the research evidence, it may be possible to influence the takeaway memory which will be acted upon by having participants feed back on their experience along the way, refer to their experience scores when summarising the programme, and share with the rest of the group their positive outcomes and how they may change their future practice. Oh and it should help if they have a positive experience at the end of the programme.
So how can you spread engagement and with it business productivity?
There is lots of research that emotions, both positive and negative are contagious. There is an evolutionary reason for why someone else’s grumpy or happy mood can infect you.
Originally we contracted fear and alarm according to Frans de Waal, a psychologist and primate expert at Atlanta’s Emory University. For example when one bird takes off in fright the whole flock takes off. Or you jump when your colleague does. This reaction meant we saved vital seconds in reacting to danger. Mood contagion also serves the function of synchronizing activities. The individual who doesn’t stay in tune with what everyone is doing will lose out. The contagion theory of mood explains why there’s a tendency for groups of people in a training workshop or project team to share a similar experience of the emotions generated. In addition psychologists believe another form of evolutionary development includes our instinctive tendency to unconsciously imitate other people’s facial expressions, vocalisations, postures, and body movements. For example, if someone smiles at you, you will tend to smile back even if you don’t know the person. Our built-in system for mimicry, explains why we transfer our good and bad moods to each other.
In a study reported in the British Medical Journal in 2008 it was found that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation. A person’s happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends; that is, to people well beyond their social horizon. The study found that happy people tend to be located in the centre of their social networks and to be located in large clusters of other happy people and that each additional happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9%. Happiness, is not just a function of personal experience, but also is a property of groups. Emotions are a collective phenomenon. Given positive mood is crucial to engagement we might reasonable assume this finding also applies to engagement clusters.
This idea can be used for good or ill in your engagement policy. It implies that to create more engagement you want to gather your already engaged people together and help them reach out to others until you get a tipping point of engaged networks.