Employee Engagement and Neuroscience (4)

Employee Engagement and Neuroscience (4)

How to Improve Employee Engagement Using Neuroscience

Employee engagement can be a challenge for many leaders. It is generally accepted that having higher levels of employee engagement is a good thing for employees as well as the organisation and the bottom line financials.


Our team illustrationAn understanding of neuroscience can be helpful in increasing employee engagement which can lead to enhanced job satisfaction, productivity, and retention. Because the brain is plastic, it is always adjusting and adapting based on the environment.

When you create supportive and collaborative environments, the brains of employees can process information more quickly and more easily, leading to effective change. But if the brains of employees perceive the workplace or their role within it as a threat, then comfort, motivation and satisfaction are all likely to decrease.


By knowing more about the brain, you can learn to limit threats. Often, these threats can come from normal business practices of assessment, changing processes, feedback, and evaluation. This leads us to consider how these standard activities at work can be made a more positive experience for the employee. Because of the lasting negative impacts threats have on our brains, decreasing the amount of threats in the workplace can positively improve employee engagement and motivation.

The SCARF Model

Dr. David Rock is a neuroscientist who has created a model for improving the relationship between leaders and employees. He calls this model SCARF.

This model stems from research that states the brain is always trying to minimise threats and maximise rewards. Moreover, social experiences follow the same reward and threat pathways in the brain that other primary needs follow.

Imagine one of our ancient ancestors coming across a new creature, plant, or water source. The brain would interpret the unknown thing as threatening or safe and react accordingly. While modern humans are not often in that same position, social experiences follow the same pathways. Dr. Rock uses the SCARF acronym to explain these social forces.


S – Status   C – Certainty   A – Autonomy   R – Relatedness   F – Fairness


When people feel uncertain of their social position or feel they are being evaluated, the brain interprets that environment as a threat. This threat is treated the same as a physical threat. In order to be safe, the brain has mechanisms that help us fight or run from the threat – the flight or fight conundrum. In the case of social threats, sometimes those may not be an option, but our brains stay on high alert, making it difficult to focus on other things until the threat is gone, our cortisol (the stress hormone) is heightened and often we need to do something physical to discharge it like go for a walk or run.

As a leader, you can work to create an environment where you are not perceived as a threat and, where possible, any change in the business is also communicated and handled in a way so as to cause the least amount of stress and uncertainty as possible. Perhaps consider doing individual people assessments in a more collaborative way. Start by allowing employees to evaluate themselves and gain insights into their own behaviours. Encourage change to come from the employee instead of the leader. This way, you can decrease the threat level but also improve the engagement the employee has with the company, with you as their leader and their own personal growth.



The brain has developed to be aware of threats. Some people are more sensitive to threats than others, but everyone is able to recognise threats to some degree. The unknown can often be worse than being able to see the threat as this leads to anxiety. Not knowing what will happen next increases the awareness of threats and puts the brain on high alert, making a person feel less safe and less able to focus on tasks at work.

Offer more certainty by working to increase communication with staff so they are more informed and have confidence about the transparency and integrity of the business and their role within it. Be clear in your communication and state expectations, goals, and other information that makes it evident that you are confident and relaxed with their work and capabilities. When employees feel safe and certain in their jobs and the organisation, they will be more engaged in their work.


Usually with any kind of change comes a choice. We have to think about when we react and how we react. Without this choice, the change (or threat) becomes even more powerful and overwhelming. It can stop us from being able to move forward and leave us unmotivated and feeling hopeless.Employee engagement surveys

Make employees aware that they have choices and that they have some control over their jobs. As a direct manager, try to limit how much you interfere in an employee’s daily tasks. Your team members should be trusted to do their work without anyone constantly checking on them.


People relate to one another in different ways, but often they view others as trustworthy and friendly if they feel the other person seems similar to them in some way. Often people have ways that protect them from the threat of someone new or different. These defences can block out the things that others say or do when they are not perceived as a member of the group. Relationship building is a vital part of a productive team. Look for ways to connect to employees and for employees to connect with each other. When everyone in a work environment is viewed as friendly and united, then the brain’s threat and alert system is quieter, allowing people to feel more in sync with the team and with their work.


Our brains can be very sensitive to fairness and we are usually aware of and react strongly to situations that we feel are unfair. These threats and the reactions to them can often be emotionally charged, possibly leading to anger and resentment.unhappy to happy faces on a scale

To improve a sense of fairness, try to be conscious of how you interact with all employees. Don’t show any sign of favouritism or special treatment. Be transparent in all decision making processes. When fairness is at stake, address the issue at hand immediately so that there can be some understanding of why things happen in the way they do.


The SCARF model uses a very basic aspect of human existence, threat and  safety. We may not think about these two things on a minute to minute basis, but our brains are always reacting in ways that relate to the pathways that were created in our ancestral pasts. As leaders or employees, we can probably all think of ways in which something we were effected by could have been looked at as our brains raising the threat alarm. With this in mind, we can learn to be more engaged leaders and employees on a brain-based level.


Part 4 in a new series about The Role of Neuroscience in Business.



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Engage & Prosper have recently launched their Employee Mood Monitor, an effective tool designed for organisations to help gauge their employee’s mood and mental health proactively, and ultimately, provide helpful resources for those that may need help or further support.


All organisations have a duty of care to the people that work for them, and the Mood Monitor is designed to help you engage with your staff, finding those that most need help or advice.

To find out more about this innovative new tool, visit our website here.



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Engage & Prosper is a UK based privately owned Employee Engagement Consultancy and Social Enterprise, on a mission to help organisations develop a highly productive and fulfilling workplace culture, with their people, through enhanced employee engagement strategies, fabulous and effective internal communications platforms and tailored reward and recognition programmes.

For more information on Engage & Prosper or to discover how we can help you achieve your organisational and people goals please call +44 (0) 330 223 0464 or find out more at www.engageandprosper.com