The following is a guest piece by Jesse Newton and Josh Davis.
If you’re trying to instill organizational change in your company, then you face not just a logistical shift, but a cultural challenge as well. Employees will have to think differently, see people differently, and act in new ways. Employees also need to continually reinforce the right habits in one another so that the customer experience is on their minds everywhere.
One method that can help is known as pride building. This is a cultural intervention in which leaders seek out a few employees who are already known to be master motivators, adept at inspiring strategic awareness among their colleagues. These master motivators are invited to recommend specific measures that enable better ways of working.
Pride builders in a wide variety of companies and industries tend to recommend three specific measures time and time again: (1) giving more autonomy to frontline workers, (2) clearly explaining to staff members the significance and value (the “why”) of everyday work, and (3) providing better recognition and rewards for employee contributions.
These are, of course, widely appreciated management methods for raising performance. But they’re rarely put into practice. Perhaps it’s because they feel counter-intuitive to many managers. Even the leaders who use them, and whose enterprises benefit from the results, don’t know why they work. So the value of these powerful practices is often overlooked.
That’s where neuroscience comes in. Breakthroughs in human brain research (using conventional experimental psychology research in addition to relatively new technologies like CT scans and magnetic resonance imaging) are revealing new insights about cognitive processes. With a little knowledge of how these three underused practices affect the brain, you can use them to generate a more energizing culture.
Autonomy at the Front Line
Why does autonomy make such a difference? Because micromanagement, the opposite of autonomy and the default behavior for many managers, puts people in a threatened state. The resulting feelings of fear and anxiety, even when people consciously choose to disregard them, interfere with performance. Specifically, a reduction in autonomy is experienced by the brain in much the same way as a physical attack.
This “fight-or-flight” reaction, triggered when a perceived threat activates a brain region called the amygdala, includes muscle contractions, the release of hormones, and other autonomic activity that makes people reactive: They are now attuned to threat and assault, and primed to respond quickly and emotionally.
An ever-growing body of research, summarized by neuroscientist Christine Cox of New York University, has found that when this fight-or-flight reaction kicks in, even if there is no visible response, productivity falls and the quality of decisions is diminished.
Neuroscientists such as Matthew Lieberman of the University of California at Los Angeles have also shown that when the neural circuits for being reactive drive behavior, some other neural circuits become less active—those associated with executive thinking, that is, controlling oneself, paying attention, innovating, planning, and problem solving.
By giving employees some genuine autonomy, a company can reduce the frequency, duration, and intensity of this threat state. Indeed, as Mauricio Delgado and his social and affective neuroscience research laboratory at Rutgers University have found, the perception of increased choice in itself activates reward-related circuits in the brain, making people feel more at ease.
In the long run, sustained lack of autonomy is an ongoing source of stress, which in itself can habitually lead the brain to be more reactive than reflective. Sustained stress can also decrease the performance of important learning and memory brain circuits, as well as the performance of the prefrontal cortex, which is so important for reflection.
The “Why” of Everyday Work
People do not have just one way of operating. They have different modes of social behavior that vary from one context to the next. The rules for social interaction are quite different when out for a drink with friends than when at a parent–teacher meeting. Schemas reflect these changes of context; thus, when a call center employee is operating in a help-a-family schema, the kinds of behaviors that are appropriate are quite different from those in a deal-with-a-customer schema.
Elliot Berkman of the University of Oregon, one of the leading researchers into the neuroscience of goal setting and habit formation, has proposed another reason why explanations of this sort are powerful motivators. When people know the reason that a goal exists, it is easier to form a “goal hierarchy”: a mental structure in which priorities can be considered as complements rather than obstacles to one another. This makes it more likely that people will follow through.
Consider the job of helping people who call for information about their insurance policy. The employee’s goal is tightly connected with the purpose of the job. If the goal is to help families, the employee would ask about the family’s challenges and describe how its policies could help. If the goal is to get people off the phone quickly, the employee would try to convince callers that the company was already doing everything it could. Employees will favor the former goal only if they see how it fits the company’s strategy, and if they are confident that pursuing it will be regarded as right by their leaders and peers.
Finally, stressing the “why” to employees helps companies deploy the cognitive power of altruism. Studies show that the brain’s reward system is directly activated by helping others. At the University of British Columbia, Elizabeth Dunn and her colleagues found that people report feeling happier after giving money to others than after spending it on themselves.
Similarly, when it’s clear to employees that they’re helping others through their work, their intrinsic motivation rapidly expands. Management by objectives is a far more limited mental schema than management by aspiration.
Recognition and Rewards
Neuroscience explains the importance of the personal touch in delivering recognition that matters. When a manager recognizes an employee’s strengths before the group, it lights up the same regions of the employee’s brain as would winning a large sum of money. Rewards of all kinds, including social rewards, tend to release the neurotransmitter dopamine, which produces good feelings. These reward circuits encourage people to repeatedly behave the same way.
One framework of social motivators is the SCARF theory: David Rock, cofounder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, proposes that people at work are highly motivated by five types of social rewards: status boosts (S); increases in certainty(C); gaining autonomy (A); enhancing relatedness (being part of the group) (R); and demonstrating fairness (F). Public personal recognition provides three of these rewards. It increases social status, enhances the sense of being a valued member of the group, and shows that hard work will be fairly recognized.
There is enormous potential for combining neuroscience theory with efforts to help companies improve the positive impact of their culture. The more people who understand the value of fostering autonomy, purpose, and recognition—and who translate these principles into practice—the more others will mirror them and the more widespread these practices will become.
Jesse Newton is an organizational culture and change management specialist with Strategy&’s Katzenbach Center. He has experience working in financial services, energy, engineered products and services, and consumer goods. Josh Davis is an assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University, and director of research and lead professor for the NeuroLeadership Institute. His research deals with adaptive emotional state control and mind–body connections.
This is an abridged piece from strategy+business magazine, excerpted by permission of strategy+business. To learn more, check out the article Three Secrets of Organizational Effectiveness. Copyright ©2014 PwC. All rights reserved.