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The science of engagement: How to reactivate disengaged employees

Thought Leadership on The Neuroscience Of Leadership presented by Zero Point Leadership.

The research in leadership and organizational change management tells us that our biggest obstacle to creating a high performance workplace is engagement. With an alarming 70% of the American workforce disengaged, it is not surprising to see organizations struggling to move change initiatives and goals forward. To facilitate change, people have to change the way they think and learn new things. This involves changing the human brain. To change the human brain, it has to be engaged. It is the foundation for everything related to change. Disengaged employees are the primary reason change efforts fail. This costs billions of dollars per year.1 Fortunately, modern neuroscience has some insights into this dilemma.

What exactly is engagement?

As defined by Tim Rutledge in his book Getting Engaged: The New Workplace Loyalty, engagement is the extent to which someone is committed to an organization or relationship.Engagement lies at the heart of a learning organization. Through the lens of neuroscience, engagement is an “approach” vs. “avoid” state. This means that the brain has assessed that the environment is safe and has found something to be rewarding.

The human brain is organized to minimize danger and maximize reward.3 Approximately five times per second, our brains make a decision that something is either threatening or rewarding. Based on this assessment, we decide to either approach or avoid something. Every action we take is based on this determination. When the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, detects a threat, it impairs functioning of brain regions necessary for conscious, rational, higher-order thinking. The further we move into a state of threat, the more disengaged we become. When our brains are in an approach state, the reward centers are activated and cognitive functioning is dramatically increased. We think better, have more creative ideas, take in more information, regulate emotions better, and are able to collaborate with others. We also make fewer mistakes. However, if the brain detects a threat, these abilities are substantially reduced. When this happens, we get tunnel vision, make more mistakes, experience problems with decision making, loose cool under pressure, and find it challenging to share ideas with each other. Because our limbic systems have evolved over the years to ensure survival, we are all pre-dispositioned to detecting threats more than rewards. As a result, it causes us to be in a mild state of threat more often than not. Our brains are wired to avoid rather than approach. Only when all threats have been minimized is the human brain able to move into an engaged state. See figure 1.

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Figure 1. The organizing principle of the human brain is to minimize danger and maximize reward. Our default is to be in a mild state of threat. This is depicted by the red dot in the illustration.

Research indicates that leaders are not aware of what motivates human behavior in the workplace. This is because they are not aware of what creates threat in the brain and what activates reward. As a result, leaders unintentionally trigger regions of the brain signaling threat. This causes disengagement.

The 4 Fs of Disengagement

Primary threats to our survival create a threat response in the brain, telling us that we need to fight, flight, freeze or faint.  This is where 70% of the American workforce is. The limbic system enlists one of these modes of survival when any form of threat is perceived. When basic human needs, such as the need for food, shelter, sleep, air, water and physical safety are threatened, the brain makes a determination that life is in danger. When these needs are met, it is rewarding to the brain. The past decade of insights from neuroscience informs us that the brain responds to social needs the same as it does to physical needs. To the brain, social threats and rewards are experienced the same as physical threats and rewards. What this means is that we treat social needs like survival needs. At a neurobiological level, we respond to the need for food and water the same as we do to how we perceive other people treat us. For instance, if the brain experiences feeling left out, rejected or ostracized in some way, it is experienced the same as a blow to the head, punch in the face or being burned. Social needs drive human behavior. When they are not met, the brain will be activated into fight, flight, freeze or faint. These modes of survival do not support productivity, creative problem solving, decision making and cooperative teamwork needed for a high performance workforce.

Social Needs

Breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal there are five core areas of social need where the human brain is triggered into either a threat or reward state during social interactions.4  These primary needs for survival include:

  1. Connection. Connection is about our need to trust and feel safe with others. It is about seeing people as friends rather than foes. Working in silos can trigger threat in the need for connection.
  2. Importance. The need for importance is about where we rank in comparison to others. In the animal kingdom status is equal to survival. For example, comparing an employee’s performance to their peer’s performance can activate threat in this social need domain.
  3. Certainty. Certainty refers to our ability to predict the future and know what is coming up.  Our brains are prediction machines, so much so that we will fill in the blanks when we don’t have all of the information. An example of something that threatens a sense of certainty in the workplace is reorganization or a budget cut.
  4. Fairness. This need is about exchanges between people being perceived as fair and equitable. For instance, lack of transparency or showing favoritism can activate states of threat in this social need domain.
  5. Autonomy. This social need relates to a sense of control over situations and events, as well as feeling like we have choice.  Micromanaging is something that can activate threat in this social domain.

A Brain-Based Solution

To increase engagement in the workplace, leaders have to manage states of threat and reward during all social interactions, and ensure their team is doing the same. Here are three steps to get you started.

  1. Be aware of the deeply social brain.  The first step is to be aware of just how deeply social the human brain is. In a world of increasing interdependency and the perceived uncertainty associated with ongoing change, you have to understand what drives human behavior in the workplace. This involves an appreciation of the physiology of the brain as it relates to how humans think, share new ideas and work together. The ability to successfully navigate the social landscape of the workplace is a skill that separates you from leaders who foster disengagement in their organizations.
  2. Recognize social threats and reward. The second step is to recognize threats and rewards in your work place setting. Start noticing when one of more of the five social needs gets threatened in social interactions. This can happen within yourself and others around you. Unless you learn to recognize and manage threats and rewards, you increase your risk of unconsciously activating a threat response in employees. Threats have to be minimized in order for people to do their best work. Increase your ability to identify what threatens peoples’ sense of connection, importance, certainty, fairness and autonomy.
  3. Activate an approach state. The third step is to get people into an approach state. Once you give the brain what it needs, you have the opportunity to help people think differently and see things from a new perspective. Only in this state are people able to think, collaborate, manage emotions and move goals forward. Practice meeting the social needs during your conversations in the workplace. Begin with one-on-one interactions and then move to group settings.

Modern neuroscience helps us see inside the brain to better understand what truly drives human beings to engage in their work and be productive members of an organization. Knowing how to create deeper levels of engagement is the foundation to innovation, high performance and successful change endeavors. It is one of the fundamental skills of being an effective leader.

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  1. Biro, M. (2013, May 19). Employee engagement: Every leader’s imperative. Forbes.
    Retrieved from
  2. Rutledge, T. (2005). Getting engaged: The new workplace loyalty. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Mattanie Press.
  3. Gordon, E. (2000).  Integrative neuroscience:  Bringing together biological, psychological and clinical models of the human brain.  Singapore:  Harwood Academic Publishers.
  4. Rock, D. (2008).  SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others.  NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 44-52.