Guest Column - September/October 2013

The Neuroscience of Leadership and Employee Engagement

By Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP

Getting employee engagement right has always been a mixture of art and science. There are research studies, models and frameworks that are crucial to operationalizing engagement initiatives, but when dealing with the beautiful complexities of human nature, we can't underestimate the importance of the nuanced artistic touches needed to make those initiatives really click.

With so much to get right, and with so much at stake, leaders would be well-served to utilize every tool available, and neuroscience may be just the additional tool for you.

Neuroscience is defined as the scientific study of the nervous system, but it's specifically the brain's response to workplace interactions that holds great promise for leaders interested in increasing engagement levels. Beyond what you can observe as a leader, your staff have powerful functions in their brains that are continuously influencing their behavior, and you need to be aware of how to make their brains comfortable.

Interestingly, people often respond counter-intuitively to what we may expect, and gaining a better understanding of the brain's function provides the opportunity to improve our workplace relationships and bring out the best in our employees.

Our brains are like forests—always growing and changing, and highly susceptible to their environment. Like trees, when we're in supportive, nurturing environments, we grow better and adapt to change more easily and much more effectively. This is especially important for leaders to understand because their success is dependent on their capacity to influence other people.

Neuroscience suggests the most effective things leaders can do to engage employees and increase their professional development is to reduce perceived threats and to help them come to insights and conclusions on their own.

These recommendations are based on understanding the primal functions of the brain and the nearly impossible task of leaders being both coaches and judges. Biologically, we are threatened by assessments of any kind, so even a well-liked manager will send our neurological threat meters into high gear when offering feedback or evaluating our performance.

Because threats stay with us far longer than rewards, neuroscience research encourages leaders not to create threats they don't have to, and to be mindful about how everyday business interactions can be perceived as threatening. Dr. David Rock, a leading neuroscience researcher, has created a model called SCARF that I've adapted and offer as a good guide for leaders.


Our brains process threats to our social status (when we face uncertainty or are being evaluated) as social pain. Social pain occurs in the same part of the brain as physical pain, so a social threat will be treated biologically just like a physical threat. When we feel social pain, we don't feel safe and are stressed. When confronted with social pain, we don't perform well because our brains can't focus on more than one thing at a time and we will continue to concentrate on the perceived threat until it dissipates.

Action Plan: As a leader, avoid creating social pain as much as possible. People tend to be their own worst critics until someone else criticizes them and creates a threat and social pain. Don't give feedback unless you really have to—it makes things worse 59 percent of the time. Instead, encourage employees to give feedback and ask questions of themselves. For example, you might ask, "Tell me some of the things you're already thinking about to improve." Good leaders facilitate insight in others, and this approach also has the advantage of creating sustained behavioral change in the brain.