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Dealing with Curveballs

Updated: Jan 23

We don't focus on tactical things to drive engagement in the workplace.

This is a key differentiator for CultureID compared to other survey platforms.

We're not talking about pay and benefits.

We're not talking about perks inside the office.

We're not talking about how many vacation days you get.


We want to focus on what drives engagement at a neurological level.

So what does that mean? “Driving engagement at a neurological level.”

As human beings, we are hard-wired to have safe and secure connections in how we interact with others every day. We have these needs at a fundamental level because that is what helps us feel like we can thrive in what we do every day.

Our brains still have this fundamental understanding that survival is safety and connection with other human beings.

Dr. Jim Coan from the University of Virginia is a pioneer in helping us understand what the brain needs to thrive. In his research, he was trying to find the neural mechanism that reduced felt pain when someone was in the presence of a close friend or partner.

His experiment was designed to measure pain levels and brain activity of volunteers receiving random shocks on their ankles. Individuals would lay down in an fMRI scanner to map the tiny metabolic changes that take place in the active parts of the brain. Coan conducted his research in three stages: First, with a trusted partner holding the woman’s hand. Second, with a stranger holding the woman’s hand. Finally, with the woman by herself.

The results were startling, with the self-reported and measured levels of pain increasing at each stage. The volunteers experienced the least amount of pain with a loved one (what researchers refer to as a safe and secure attachment figure), more pain with a stranger, and the maximum discomfort when alone.

Through significant research he concluded that the process they were observing wasn’t the result of the pain being reduced in the presence of the attachment figure, but rather he found that the baseline for the way the brain registered pain was to assume the presence of social resources.

He named this model of brain functioning social baseline theory to underscore the game-changing clarity that the brain not only functions more effectively in a prosocial environment, but it assumes it is in one already.

For many years, we said that work is the new tribe. We spend more of our waking hours with other adults at work than we do anywhere else in our lives. And when we don't have that, our sense of pain goes way up. Our understanding of fear goes way up. Our sense of survival goes way up. Our brains expect and rely on trusted other people. This has implications at home, but it has so many consequences in the workplace.

This past couple of years has shifted that because we're at home more now, and with our partners and our families more.

Any organization can give perks. Any employer can offer more vacation days. But you're going to find the same kinds of tactical benefits across the US economy - perks that are nice, but don’t have lasting impact on engagement in a culture.

What does vary, however, is the type of culture inside every organization across the country. If engagement were easy, every organization would have highly engaged teams. A company culture whose foundation is connected employees, trusted relationships, and accountable leaders will always perform better for the long term than those organizations who spend their time and resources trying to out-perk their competitors.

We expect and count on having safe and secure connections with those people that we're walking with through work and life. Our brains rely on trusted others. We rely on predictability and consistency. We know this at a neurological level. It is studied and tested and proven.

What happens when that’s missing in a culture?

Say you have this experience: you wake up in the morning with plans for what you're going to accomplish in the day. You get to work and see a message from your boss, and that message throws you for a tailspin.

Something has happened.

You're not sure what is going on, but you now have this curveball from the person you report to you. That message turns you from focusing on the plan you had for the day and puts you in reaction mode.

A lot of bosses do this unintentionally. They come to you with an idea, plan, or often - a judgment on how you're working. Instead of you being able to move forward and in the way you expected for that day, you're now operating in survival mode.

You're trying to understand. You're trying to adapt. When you're in an environment where you can't trust the plan that's ahead of you and you don't have people around you who are consistent, predictable, and safe, you’ll stay in a heightened state of survival rather than in a high state of engagement.

What about when safe and secure connections do exist in your culture?

You have a challenging project to tackle, maybe a client demand coming down the pike that you weren't expecting and the way that our brains naturally deal with unexpected situations is to move into that sense of survival. But you have a fantastic team working around you, and everybody is pitching in with ideas, being accountable to one another, and supporting one another.

The work that's expected of you feels more accessible from a brain-based level because everybody works in sync together towards a common goal and purpose.

The ability to do this is what is called “load share.”

Everyone on your team can pick up the mantle and work towards a common goal together so that no person has to carry the load all by themselves.

This load share ability happens in safe organizations and trusted teams. When you're able to operate at that level, you're able to work at the highest capacity possible.

There are three ways to foster a sense of safety and a sense of load sharing in the organization when curveballs happen: empathy, clarity, and gratitude.

The first way to foster safety is acknowledgment, which is simply expressing empathy that you understand your employees had a plan for their day, a way that things were going to go, tasks they needed to get done, and you're bringing something new to their attention that they need to be tackling instead.

That can be hard for them. But when you express empathy to their situation you can bring them back to a sense of safety.

You then need to provide clarity. If you don't clarify what's going on, why it's happening, or how things are changing, they're left feeling in the dark, confused, and frustrated. Giving them a sense of clarity helps them understand why they need to be turning from what they expected to what they need to be doing.

One of the best things that you can do when you're providing clarity is to bring the affected employees into that conversation. Ask for their opinion. Ask for their help or support on meeting this new demand or this new challenge the team is facing.

When you solicit their opinion, you create even deeper engagement.

Finally, offer them some gratitude.

Don't forget to come back after the situation is resolved and say, “I know this wasn't what you expected. I know we had a big project to tackle. I want to tell you how much I appreciate you stepping in, saying yes, and helping us meet this need.”

When you come in afterward and you remember to thank them and acknowledge them for their work and how they adjusted to meet the need, that feels good.

We've covered a lot here.

We've talked about neuroscience and what creates the conditions in the brain so people feel safe and can thrive.

Social baseline theory helps inform that.

This is the whole goal of CultureID: to give you specific drivers of engagement in the workplace so you can understand what's going on - not from a personal satisfaction standpoint, but from a deep neurological perspective of how you can support and connect with and engage with your employees.

If this is something that you want to understand inside your organization, reach out.

We would love to help you get data, metrics, and insight into how your people feel every single day.

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