Guest blog post by Laurie Ellington -
Clearly, the research in leadership and organizational change management demonstrates that our biggest obstacle to moving past the status quo in child and family-serving systems of care is engagement. A recent 2013 poll by Gallup demonstrated how disengaged American workers really are. It showed that 70% of employees in America are disengaged. This is quite alarming, as one can imagine, and has a profound impact on an organization’s ability to innovate, be creative, and optimally perform. A state of engagement is critical to helping others change unwanted habits of thinking and behaving that create barriers to effectively serving and supporting children, adolescents, and families. It is the foundation for everything related to change- at all levels of the system. Disengagement is the primary reason change efforts fail or underperform. It also costs us billions of dollars per year (Biro, 2013). Simply put, if we don’t learn how to master it, child and family-serving organizations will never perform at their peak and achieve optimal outcomes.
What is Engagement?
As defined by Tim Rutledge in his book Getting Engaged: The New Workplace Loyalty (2005), engagement is the extent someone is committed to an organization or relationship – it is a state of being attracted, committed, and fascinated. Engagement lies at the heart of commitment to the system of care framework. Through the lens of neuroscience, engagement is also referred to as an approach, toward, or reward state. So, what does this mean and how does it apply to systems of care?
The overarching organizing principle of the human brain is to minimize danger and maximize reward (Gordon, 2000). Approximately 5 times per second, the brain makes a decision that something is either threatening or rewarding. Basically, is it good or bad? Based on this assessment, we decide to either move away or toward something. Every action we take is based on this determination. When the limbic system – referred to as the emotional center of our brain – detects a threat, it impairs functioning of the regions associated with conscious, rational, higher order thinking. The further we move into a state of threat – or what is also referred to as an away state - the more disengaged we become. When our brains are in a reward state, also known as at toward state, our cognitive functioning is dramatically increased. Just a slight toward state significantly increases our capacity to think, have creative ideas, be more insightful, take in more information, and collaborate with others. However, if the brain detects a threat, these capacities are substantially decreased. This means we are much less creative, cognitive resources are reduced, we are more pessimistic, and our ability to collaborate and share ideas with each other is severely impaired when the limbic system determines something in the environment is threatening vs. rewarding. It reduces the resources available to the prefrontal cortex, also known as the CEO of the brain, decreasing our ability to make decisions and solve problems. Unfortunately, our default state is a slight threat state (depicted by the red dot on the left side of the horizontal line in the diagram above). To illustrate the implications of this in a change initiative, a traditional leadership and change management best practice in systems of care has been to “create a burning platform” atmosphere in order to motivate employees to see the need for change. However, instead of increasing motivation levels, this activates the limbic response, recruits the brain’s higher thinking resources, and impairs the processing of new information, ideas, and novel perspective taking.
What Activates a Threat - or Disengaged – State?
Primary threats to our survival create a threat response in the brain, telling us that we need to fight, flee, or freeze in order to survive. When we have this experience, there is an enhancement in physical performance, but thinking performance declines. Primary threats to our survival are things like seeing a tiger cross our path, a predator trying to break into our home in the middle of the night, hunger, and thirst for example. Primary rewards include things such as food, water, and air for instance. Insights from neuroscience inform us that the brain responds to social threats and rewards the same as it does to physical threats and rewards. Social needs are treated like survival needs in the human brain. For instance, if the brain experiences feeling left out, rejected, or ostracized – which happens more often than we think in team meetings - it is experienced the same as a strike to the head, a punch in the face, or the pain we feel on our hand when it touches a hot burner. This is not so good news for systems transformation efforts. There are core social needs that drive human behavior and they are experienced the same, if not more intensely, than physical rewards or threats to survival. Neuroscience findings inform us that these have a profound impact on our ability to think and perform, as the human brain is very much our social organ.
What are the Core Social Needs?
David Rock (2008) developed a neuroscience-based framework that helps leaders understand what drives human behavior. The SCARF® Model describes five domains, or social drivers – status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness- as the areas where the human brain is triggered into either a threat (disengagement) or reward (engagement) state during social interactions. Status is about our perceived importance to other people – or where we rank. Certainty refers to our ability to predict the future and know what is coming up. Autonomy relates to a sense of control over situations and events, as well as feeling like we have choice. Relatedness concerns feelings of safety with others or deciding whether or not someone is friend or foe, and fairness is about exchanges between people being perceived as fair and equitable.
When the brain detects a social threat, it moves to a threat state, where it is cognitively disengaged and noisy from an aroused limbic system. For example, during a mental health reform initiative, a lack of transparency can activate a threat response in the fairness social need domain. When people feel that the leadership is not sharing information about the change process, it may be perceived as unfair. Working in silos, for instance, may trigger an aroused limbic system due to a threat response in the relatedness domain. On the other hand, the toward state sets the stage for reflection and making new connections that lead to creative solutions and ideas needed for complex problems. For instance, actively including people in the decision making process and providing choice can activate a toward response in the certainty and autonomy domains. Focusing on how people are improving- even small improvements- can activate a reward state in the status domain, as perceived status is increased when people feel that they have made progress. The reason the literature shows that traditional leadership approaches designed to improve engagement in organizational change have not been effective may be because we have not yet learned to recognize, much less manage, the social landscape in workplace settings, leading to a disengaged workforce and challenges with improving the policies, programs, and practices intended to achieve better outcomes.
An effective solution to this challenge is to understand and apply the science that underlies engagement so that we better manage the social context of human service systems. Changing human behavior requires changing the human brain. To change the human brain, it must be engaged. The ART Model for Increasing Engagement™ is a neuroscience-based model system of care leaders can use to ensure that people are more deeply engaged in a change process or change conversation, whether at the individual, team, organizational, or systemic level. There are three steps involved and they are captured in the acronym ART.
1. Awareness of the Social Brain. The first step is to be aware of the deeply social brain. In a world of increasing interdependency and the perceived uncertainty associated with ongoing change, system of care leaders need to understand what drives human behavior in the workplace. This involves an appreciation of the physiology of the brain as it relates to how humans think, share new ideas, and work together.
2. Recognize Threats & Rewards. The second step is to recognize threats and rewards in our social work world. The SCARF® model is an effective tool to use for recognizing threats and rewards. Through the lens of SCARF®, the five areas where we are triggered into a state of threat or reward are Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. Unless system of care leaders recognize and manage threats and rewards, they run the high risk of non-consciously activating a threat response in themselves and others, significantly decreasing thinking resources.
3. Toward State. The third step is to get people in a toward state. Once they are in a toward state, system of care leaders have the opportunity to help people think differently and see things from a new perspective so that they are able to change old hardwired habits getting in the way of better performance.
Knowing how to create deeper levels of engagement is the foundation to innovation, practice improvement, and successful change endeavors. It is a fundamental skill of a brain-based leader.
To learn more about brain-based leadership development, visit www.zeropointleadership.com.
Biro, M. (2013, May 19). Employee engagement: Every leader’s imperative. Forbes.
Gordon, E. (2000). Integrative neuroscience: Bringing together biological, psychological and clinical models of the human brain. Singapore: Harwood Academic Publishers.
Rock, D. (2008). SCARF: A brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others. NeuroLeadership Journal, 1, 44-52.
Rutledge, T. (2005). Getting engaged: The new workplace loyalty. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Mattanie Press
About Laurie Ellington
Laurie Ellington, MA, LPC, CPC, RCC is co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Zero Point Leadership™. She believes that we can change the world by changing our thoughts and beliefs. As a NeuroLeadership Coach, Social Change Facilitator, and Inspirational Speaker, she works with people who want to take an unconventional approach to moving beyond the status quo in order to create remarkable change in their lives and organizations. Laurie combines research from neuroscience, modern physics, positive psychology, and systems thinking to help leaders, teams, and organizations utilize the power of self-awareness, presence, and insight to transform culture and mindfully improve human performance. She co-developed the Zero Point Results Model™, which is a comprehensive organizational and systems improvement framework that rests on a neuroscience and systems thinking platform.