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The Chemistry of Engagement

The Chemistry of Engagement

The human brain is not static; it is designed to adapt constantly. We can intentionally shape the direction of changes in our brain, referred to as brain plasticity. For example, by focusing on wholesome thoughts and directing our intentions in those ways, we can potentially influence the plasticity of our brain and shape it in ways that can be beneficial. Just as we may learn to play the piano through practice, the same goes for cultivating well-being and happiness. That leads us to the inevitable conclusion that qualities like warm-heartedness and well-being should best be regarded as skills.

In an effort to understand how company culture affects performance, scientists began measuring the brain activity of people while they worked. The neuroscience experiments revealed trust varies across situations and individuals; high oxytocin levels reduce the fear of trusting a stranger, while high stress is a potent oxytocin inhibitor. Most people intuitively know this: when they are stressed, they do not interact with others effectively. The researchalso discovered that oxytocin increases a person’s empathy, an important chemical to induce and maximise collaboration.

In his book Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek offers an analysis on why we do what we do by explaining the four chemicals in our bodies that work towards driving our behaviour,and how our bodies employ a system of positive and negative feelings to promote behaviours that will enhance our ability to get things done and to cooperate. Sinek explains that chemicals in the brain that drive behaviour are either “selfish” or “selfless”. Selfish chemicals, like endorphins and dopamine, work to get us where we need to go as individuals — to persevere, find food, build shelters, invent tools, drive forward and get things done. Selfless chemicals, like serotonin and oxytocin, incentivise us to work together and develop feelings of trust and loyalty. They work to help strengthen our social bonds so that we are more likely to work together and to cooperate.

This may assist in identifying management behaviours that foster trust and engagement in the workplace. These behaviours are measurable and can be managed to improve performance.

In the workplace

The role of leaders in creating a mentally healthy workplace is pivotal. Leaders who think of themselves as treating their employees like family can increase job satisfaction and engagement, which reduces stress and increases productivity because employees feel secure.

Recognise excellence.
Neuroscientific experiments show that recognition has the largest effect on trust when it occurs immediately after a goal has been met, when it comes from peers, and when it is tangible, unexpected, personal, and public. Public recognition not only uses the power of the crowd to celebrate successes, but also inspires others to aim for excellence. Additionally, it gives top performers a forum for sharing best practices so that others can learn from them.

Induce “challenge stress.”
When a manager assigns a team a difficult but achievable task, the moderate stress of the task releases neurochemicals, including oxytocin and an adrenocorticotropic hormone that intensify people’s focus and strengthen social connections. When team members need to work together to reach a goal, brain activity coordinates their behaviours efficiently. But this works only if challenges are attainable and have a concrete endpoint: vague or impossible goals cause people to give up before they even start.

Give people discretion in how they do their work.
Once employees have been 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. Autonomy also promotes innovation, because different people try different approaches.

Share information broadly.
Too many employees report that they are not 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. Organisations that share their “flight plans” with employees reduce uncertainty about where they are headed and why.

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.

Intentionally build relationships.
The brain network that oxytocin activates in is evolutionarily old. This means that the trust and sociality that oxytocin enables is deeply embedded in our nature. Yet at work we often get the message that we should focus on completing tasks, not on making friends. Neuroscientific experiments show that when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves.

Facilitate whole-person growth.
High-trust workplaces adopt a growth mindset when developing talent, helping people develop personally as well as professionally. Numerous studies show that acquiring new work skills isn’t enough; if you’re not growing as a human being, your performance will suffer. Conversely, a workplace which helps you get closer to your goals is one you want to work at, and you want to give your best because you know that will translate into even more opportunities.

Show vulnerability.
Leaders in high-trust workplaces ask for help from colleagues instead of just telling them to do things. Research shows that this stimulates oxytocin production in others, increasing their trust and cooperation. Asking for help is a sign of a secure leader—one who engages everyone to reach goals. Asking for help is effective because it taps into the natural human impulse to cooperate with others.