Using Neuroscience To Increase Employee Engagement ‘Works Every Time,’ Culture Expert Says

Leaders of all stripes are likely relying on anecdotes to improve culture, not the hard science that explains the emotional drivers of employee behavior.

Rafts of leadership books draw conclusions based on what worked for one leader at one point in time, said culture expert Don Rheem at IPA’s PRIME Symposium in November 2019. Companies are different, cultures are different, and leaders and employees are each unique. By contrast, he says, neuroscience provides the key to creating workplace conditions where employees can thrive, and “it works every time.”

Rheem, founder of E3 Solutions, which surveys and measures employee engagement, coaches CEOs and their teams to find the answers in scientific research. He authored Thrive by Design: The Neuroscience That Drives High-Performance Cultures.

To recruit the best talent and keep them happy takes an understanding of how the brain works, Rheem said in a follow-up interview with IPA. People everywhere – herd animals at their core – need to feel safe, secure, socially connected and supported by higher-ups, “a valued member of the herd.”

These basic needs are hard-wired yet overlooked at work, where conditions can be unpredictable, and therefore threatening, so employees cannot work at their full capacity. When employees feel fear (recognized or not), studies show their IQ and focus drop while distractibility and hypervigilance increase.

It’s just not possible to leave your emotions at home, and emotional responses are far more important than most leaders realize. And with very low unemployment, employees can easily go elsewhere if they’re unhappy.

Rheem said failure to get it right does not mean leaders and managers are bad people. Many came from hierarchical, top-down, punitive workplaces. “It typically hasn’t been modeled for them, so they don’t really know what they’re supposed to be doing.”

The vast majority of the employees’ discontent centers on the relationship with their immediate supervisor. In fact, 85% of those who quit cite their supervisor as the reason. “They [supervisors] have to create the conditions where their employees look forward to coming to work. It’s so important.”

Employees are more likely to enjoy Mondays if they understand their contribution to the larger purpose of the organization, or “the why” behind going to work every day. Rheem suggested asking new hires to write a one-paragraph statement on why they went into accounting. Is it about helping clients make bigger profits? Probably not. Is it about helping companies create secure workplaces so families can grow and thrive? Perhaps. If firms can define their purpose and stick to it in everything they do, engagement will increase. Additionally, firms will discover a competitive advantage – the reason why their firm is different than all the rest.

Managers who understand the basics of neuroscience get to know employees personally, create stronger bonds and communicate better about culture and engagement. This may not come naturally to introverted accountants, “but when they see the results, they lean in, and that’s where the engagement kicks in and takes hold.”

Interestingly, accounting firms are increasingly using science in data analysis and other technological developments but resist science when it comes to human behavior, Rheem said. Knowing what employees need “down to the cellular level” is critical, but paradoxically, it’s not that complicated. “Just use science to help guide you and that’s the most valuable thing you can do.”

This article originally appeared in the January 2020 edition of INSIDE Public Accounting. To subscribe to INSIDE Public Accounting Monthly click here.


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