Source:  White Paper by Kirk Fisher, Faculty Head of the Australian Applied Management Colloquium

With advances in neuroscience in the past 15 years, we can now see in more detail than ever why changes in workplace culture have a strong effect on output and retention. With the right tools, we – as people leaders – can minimise the brain’s threat responses and promote a reward response in our team, writes ASAM Faculty Head Kirk Fisher. Today, like every day, billions of human brains go to work. This is nothing new. For centuries our ancestors rolled out of bed, dressed and offered their services for pay. What we know now, though, to a greater degree than ever, is what happens inside these heads. In this article I’d like to share a quick history of how we look at workplace happiness and productivity, and then share some more recent studies of what actually happens in our brains. Most importantly, I’d like to show why a positive organisational culture works.

Before we had our current brain scanning technology, we looked at the workplace as a matter of productivity. Efficiency studies in the 1930s showed us evidence that workplace morale made a difference. Experimenters in one early study looked at assemblers in the Hawthorne Electrical Factory. The experimenters changed a range of factors like toilet breaks, lighting and the length of the workday. The researchers observed that a sense of happiness, autonomy or control had a large effect on efficiency – even more than changes in pay, policy or physical discomfort. Workers performed better, for instance, when the experimenters installed a red button to control their lighting, heat and cold. The addition of the button increased productivity – even when they disconnected the wires to the button so it didn’t work.

The Social Brain

Since then we have seen further factors that effect workers’ happiness and morale, and to look at this it is helpful to look at the brain. Our brain operates as a social organ. While at work, we appear to be, well … working. We dress as professionals, and talk with practiced confidence. However, we can see that more is going on when we look through a Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan (MRI).
What we see is that while our conscious activity seems to be dressed nicely, smiling and confident, our hidden grey matter is constantly checking for social threats and opportunities. The most powerful systems of our brain operate like a member of a primate group in the wild, whether we consciously know it or not. Our kinship relations are our number one priority, as far as the brain is concerned, and this can have a huge impact on our ability to work.
Your brain, in fact, is wired the same for social pain as physical pain (see illustration). Your brain looks about the same when a colleague publicly criticises you as when you cut a finger. When you tell a lie or hide your feelings it is the same as a blow to the head. Why is this such a surprise?
Dr Beecher served as a medic in World War II. Cut off from supplies during battle he was forced to ask soldiers about their pain to see who would get the limited amount of morphine. To his surprise, 75% of the soldiers said they were okay, and suffered no pain.
They had been shot, after all. Dr Beecher had been a civilian physician long enough to know this was not right. The story the soldiers told, however, suggested that the message these wounded men told themselves was a different message than what civilians tell themselves when they are shot.
The story makes a difference. The civilian might say, for instance, ‘I am shot! How terrible!’ and need the morphine.
The soldier, on the other hand, tells a different story, and suffers less: ‘I am shot. I’ll go out of the battle now. They’ll bring me to a hospital. Maybe I’ll get to go home.’
Pain and emotion link closely in our neural systems. Most over-the-counter pain relievers, for instance, affect the emotional reaction parts of the brain, rather than nerve receptors. We should look at what this looks like in the workplace next.

Brain pain in the workplace

The emotional systems in our brain closely link to physical pain, as we see, but for some reason we tend to ignore our brain pain as if it were not there. If we perceive a social connection threat, for instance – if our colleague ignores us, or we feel nagged by our boss – we might pretend to ignore it, shrug it off, and try to mask our feelings.
We need to know that our brain cannot do that. When our social connection is threatened a central part of our brain will change the way the whole system operates.
This is surprising. Intuitively, we think that our brains speed up or slow down, but they actually operate at one speed. Whether we are asleep, driving a car or solving a crossword, the brain maintains one level of output. At the warning of a threat, therefore, blood and glucose immediately divert to the ‘fear, flight or fight’ portions of our brain. Other parts will slow down to compensate. Because we are limited in our brain capacity, we will lose the ability to concentrate, to remember short-term facts, or think creatively. This is what we mean when we say our ‘morale’ suffers.
This is why psychologists Dr Peter Cotton and Dr Peter Hart note that organisational climate is the strongest predictor of individual morale and distress. In their review of workplace wellbeing and performance, Cotton and Hart suggest morale, in turn, gives us a strong influencer of behaviours like productivity, negativity and positive ‘citizenship’ types of behaviour in the workplace. (Cotton, Peter and Hart, Peter M. (2003) ‘Occupational wellbeing and performance: a review of organisational health research’, Australian Psychologist, 38: 2, 118 – 127)

Brains at work

So morale is important. Great leaders understand this, and create conditions for brains to thrive. We suggest issues of culture, social connection and morale are the main tasks of leadership.
To do this, we must learn the code our brains follow. Here it is – our brains focus on the following primary qualities of social connection:
  1. Status
  2. Certainty
  3. Autonomy
  4. Relationship
  5. Fairness
These form the basis for a positive workplace culture. For instance, when cooperation outweighs competition, individuals focus less on loss and gain of status. We give trust to an organisation when our managers behave predictably (certainty). When our leaders offer us opportunities for autonomy over how we achieve outcomes we will work harder than if simply handed a set of procedures. If we sense we are part of a team we will work better (relationship). If we see poor behaviour rewarded or ignored, this offends our innate sense of fairness, and we will be likely to disengage.

We will see variations on this theme every day in our workplace. What we find, too, is that when team members learn how the brain works, our views change. While we used to view discussions of culture to be a ‘fluffy’ aspect of organisational leadership, we can now we see a basis for paying more attention to our social connections. Our brains work that way.

The Leadership Sphere is the trusted business partner to many of Australia’s largest and most respected companies across a range of industries. We specialise in Leadership DevelopmentCorporate Team Development and Culture Change.

Illustration: Samuel Valasco Source: Eisenberger, Lieberman, and Williams, Science, 2003 (social pain images); Lieberman et al., “The Neural Correlates of Placebo Effects: A Disruption Account,” Neuroimage, May 2004 (physical pain images)