Breakthroughs in human brain research show why some management practices work better than others, write Jesse Newton and Josh Davis for Strategy+Business. The authors use neuroscience to explain why the “pride building” method works so well.
Pride building is a powerful way to improve an organisation’s culture. The practice involves singling out the “master motivators” among your employees and using them to kickstart behavioural changes among workers.
We tend to subconsciously pick up on the mood and attitude of others within our social setting, the authors explain. An individual’s emotions become “contagious”, rapidly influencing others in their group. Our brains also undergo “mirror neuron activity”. This means that simply watching someone else behave in a certain way activates the same circuits in our own brains that the behaviour itself would.
For all of these reasons, the workplace breeds “viral behaviour” – where new ways of behaving are transmitted through observation. Social scientists call this “the bandwagon effect” and the authors think it explains why pride building is such a powerful method.
PRIDE BUILDER BEHAVIOURS
As well as inspiring employees to perform better, pride builders are a great source of ideas and solutions about how to improve an organisation’s culture.
The authors have found that when pride builders – from whatever company – are asked to recommend measures that facilitate performance, they tend to highlight the same three methods. These are:
These three behaviours – intuitively selected by the pride builders – have powerful positive effects on the human brain. Newton and Davis go on to explain the science behind these pride builder behaviours.
1) Giving more autonomy to frontline workers. Allowing customer-facing staff more leeway – to deal with customer complaints or promote products, for instance – can greatly enhance performance and improve customer experience.
Having greater autonomy makes us more positive, explain Newton and Davis. The opposite of this – being micromanaged – puts us in a threatened state. When our autonomy is reduced or restricted, our brains react in the same way as they would toward a physical attack. The “fight-or-flight” response is triggered and our bodies are primed to react quickly and emotionally to threat and assault.
Fight-or-flight reduces productivity and prevents us from making good decisions. Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, of the University of California at Los Angeles, has shown that when we are in this mode, we are less able to control ourselves, pay attention, innovate, plan and problem-solve.
In giving employees some degree of general autonomy, managers can reduce the frequency and intensity of this counterproductive threat state. Social and affective neuroscientist Mauricio Delgado has also found that just the perception of having increased choice activates reward circuits in the brain and makes us feel more relaxed.
And this makes for better customer service. Micromanaged frontline staff in fight-or-flight mode tend to respond aggressively to customer complaints.
Staff who feel they have more autonomy will have a more relaxed physiological state and are more likely to show empathy toward customers.
2) Explaining the purpose of everyday work to staff. When call centre workers for a US health insurance company were encouraged to see their role as helping families rather than dealing with claims, they started to deliver better customer care.
Explaining the significance of everyday tasks to staff and invoking empathy towards customers can be powerful motivators.
First, explain the authors, we all have different operating modes depending on the context of the situation – or schema – we are in. Thus the “help-a-family schema” promotes very different behaviours than the “deal-with-a-customer schema”.
Second, explaining the goals of everyday work and why they exist enables employees to perform better. If the health insurance worker understands that their goal is to help families, they are likely to be more empathetic than an employee whose goal is to get callers off the telephone quickly.
Finally, when we help others, our brain’s reward system is activated, and this makes us feel happier. Employees who feel their work helps others are intrinsically motivated to work harder.
3) Providing greater recognition to employees. The most effective supervisors tend to reward their employees’ successes in a skilful and personalised way. They take what the authors describe as a “pride-builder-style approach” to conveying recognition to staff.
Recognition makes us feel good. Rewards – such as the social reward of being recognised in front of one’s peers – release dopamine, a neurotransmitter which produces good feelings in the brain. Once we have enjoyed the reward of recognition, we want to experience it again. This “reward circuit” encourages employees to repeat their reward-producing behaviour.
David Rock’s SCARF theory also explains why recognition is such a powerful motivator. Workers are highly motivated by the following five types of social rewards: status boosts, increased certainty, gaining autonomy, relatedness (feeling part of a group) and demonstrating fairness.
Public personal recognition ticks three of these five social motivation boxes. It increases the employee’s social status and their feeling of being a valued member of the group and is the fair recognition of their hard work.
This is why public, personalised recognition works. Employees who have been publicly recognised for their contributions will be happier and more motivated to continue working in productive ways.
The authors conclude that there is great potential for combining neuroscience theory with methods like pride building to find new, constructive ways to improve organisational culture.