How To Increase Engagement On Your Team: A Science-Backed Way
Updated: Mar 27
(Originally published in Forbes.)
Engaged employees fuel productivity and profitability for companies, yet the data on engagement levels is grim. As reported by Gallup, only 30% of employees in the U.S. and 13% worldwide are engaged with their work. Worse yet, these numbers have hardly moved over 12 years’ time. The data also indicates that managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores — something many people can relate to from their own experience.
So what can you do to better engage your people and inspire them to perform at a higher level? An important place to start is to better understand the profoundly social nature of our brain and how it processes and reacts to threats and rewards. Three findings from neuroscience are essential to understand:
1. Our brain is constantly monitoring and responding to the world in a binary way: as either a threat to move away from or as a reward to move toward.
2. There are overlaps between the brain regions that control survival needs and those that control social needs. To our brain, our social needs are just as primary as food, water and shelter, including at work.
3. Our brain’s response to a threat is much stronger than its response to a reward. Both physical and social pain activate the same networks in the brain. This means that the pain that we feel from a slight at the office registers in the brain as though we have been physically hurt — and can often be felt at an even higher intensity.
When our brain perceives even a subtle threat, our limbic system becomes aroused. This limbic arousal reduces resources available to our prefrontal cortex and impairs our cognitive abilities, including our capacity to clearly see issues, solve problems and collaborate. Conversely, when we find our workplace interactions rewarding, we have a greater capacity to make decisions, solve problems and work with others. These facts have huge implications for leadership, performance and engagement in the workplace.
The good news for leaders is that through the field of social cognitive neuroscience and MRI technology, we understand the key social domains where people can feel either threatened or rewarded. As summarized by David Rock’s SCARF model, these domains are
• Status: Wanting to feel esteemed
• Certainty: Wanting clarity and predictability
• Autonomy: Having a sense of control
• Relatedness: Desiring connection
• Fairness: The perception of fair exchange and impartiality
Recent research shared by the Neuroleadership Institute linked these domains directly with workplace satisfaction and engagement. In other words, the more each of these domains was satisfied on the job, the more satisfied people were. So, if you want to increase performance and engagement on your team, one key lever you have is to make interactions with your team as rewarding as possible.
The first step is to think about both yourself and your team members and figure out the order of their needs. One size does not fit all, and there are individual differences in the priority of those needs. For example, status is the most important need for some people, and they will likely thrive on public recognition, while others will have a different need that ranks higher. The SCARF assessment is available online, or you can simply think about and discuss which domains are most important to each person and list them accordingly.
When you understand which of these five domains are key triggers, you will be able to better understand some of your own (and others') reactions. You’ll also be able to reward your team members in ways that best meet their needs. To get you started, here are a few simple ideas for ways to reward others in each domain.
Status: Across species, status has shown to be a critical factor in general health and survival. Your brain is constantly monitoring your status in any group. Status helps us feel valued and important to the group. Increase feelings of status among your team members by asking for their input and opinions, providing positive feedback, or acknowledging their work and accomplishments in front of others.
Certainty: Uncertainty arouses the limbic system, whereas certainty helps people think and act with great confidence. Increase feelings of certainty by setting clear expectations and sharing information. If you request a meeting with someone, take the time to briefly explain what you would like to meet about, or they’re likely to feel a threat from the uncertainty.
Autonomy: Autonomy is about feeling like you have a choice and dramatically impacts stress levels. Enable individual decision making on your team as much as possible and avoid micromanaging. This kills morale, hinders performance and increases turnover. In career conversations with your direct reports, ask them about their goals versus telling them goals that you have pre-set for them. This will help increase feelings of autonomy, ownership and engagement.
Relatedness: People have a fundamental need to belong and be accepted, and relatedness is about that connection and feeling part of the group. You can increase feelings of relatedness by engaging with, encouraging and trusting your team members. Go out of your way to actively engage with and include any remote team members who can feel both isolated and marginal.
Fairness: Everyone likes to feel that they have been treated fairly. Increase feelings of fairness on your team by being open and transparent about important processes and decision making. When the outcome of a promotion cycle or pay review is not what someone was hoping for, the medicine goes down much easier if they feel the process was fair.
Meeting your team members' SCARF needs can lead to higher performance and engagement, and it costs nothing. What can you do today to make interacting with you more rewarding?