Pain or Pleasure? Improving Employee Engagement by Understanding the Brain

Stuart Sinclair - June 30, 2015
Employee Engagement
Are your employee engagement techniques causing your employees more pain than reward? According to research by Naomi Eisenberger of UCLA, the brain's 'Pain Network' can be activated as much by unfair treatment as physical injury.

The pain network (the dorsal anterior congulate cortext, thalmus and insula for the anatomists amongst you) is activated by a range of negative stimulus including physical pain, social exclusion, bereavement unfair treatment and negative social comparisons. The reward network, on the other hand, responds to physical pleasures, a sense of safety, being treated fairly, cooperation, giving and enjoys social standing.

An article by Christine Comaford at Forbes suggests that if leaders understand what fires up each brain network, they can avoid common pitfalls in managing employee engagement. She highlights three main pitfalls:

  1. Not acting on feedback after requesting it

  2. Stale missions, visions and values

  3. Inefficient delegation

Most managers would readily accept the first two, and hopefully avoid them by instinct. The third pitfall is less obvious.

Read 13 Fantastic Employee Engagement Ideas

Most managerial consultants would suggest that managers and executives delegate low value activities as soon as possible. However, Comaford suggests that:

"Delegation sends people into the pain network when it falls to the micro-management side of the spectrum or …. delegating without getting buy in, commitment, or assessing capability and capacity."

The manager who micro-manages every aspect of their job feels isolated as they have to do everything. The person they are delegating to feels "disempowered, excluded, and low status…they can’t get anything right and their opinions don’t matter."It's an interesting thought that, in this scenario, there is zero engagement from both employees; the manager and the person they are delegating to.

Read our comprehensive guide and discover the seven essential steps to  improving employee engagement within your organisation.

So, how can management avoid these pitfalls and create a better environment for employee engagement, including themselves? An article at suggests it could be as simple as letting staff get on with their jobs and saying thank you!

Red Letter Days for Business conducted a survey into the straits of managers of highly motivated employees. The survey showed that highly engaged staff:

  • have a manager who cares about them (98%)

  • have someone who encourages their development (97%)

  • have opportunities to learn and grow (98%)

  • receive reward or recognition for work well done (80%)

Read What is Employee Engagement in Reality?

Perhaps the most surprising finding of all was that:

"Just 18 per cent of all British employees received a verbal thank you from their manager in the last 12 months."

So, if you want to improve employee engagement and fire up your employee's brain pleasure network at the same, it could be as simple as a "Thank you, I really appreciate your work on this" for a job well done. And, of course, letting them get on with the job in the first place!

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