Why should leaders care about neuroscience? What does brain science have to do with work? Shouldn’t our employees just show up and do their jobs?

As we’ve talked about recently, one of the biggest battles employers are facing today, in this era of immense talent shortage, is how to reduce turnover and retain their best employees. Using neuroscience to understand what drives human behavior is the quickest and most sustainable way to help you not only increase your organization’s bottom line, but also better connect with your employees and keep them at your company for as long as possible. When you create an environment where your  employees can thrive, you create a culture of engagement that drives productivity. If you want to reach your business goals – and get the work done – you have to care about brain science.

Last week I discussed the limbic system and the role of emotions. Today I’m tackling Social Baseline Theory and what it means for your workplace.

Dr. James Coan, the father of Social Baseline Theory

Dr. James Coan is a brilliant neuroscientist and clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia. Dr. Coan discovered the concept we understand as Social Baseline Theory (SBT). The shorthand version is this: we are hardwired at birth to have safe and secure connections with others. This is how our species not only survived across centuries but also excelled at the top of the food chain and intellectual hierarchy. This social-rich orientation continues today, deeply seared into virtually every fold and crevice of the brain.

Social Baseline Theory at Work from E3 Solutions on Vimeo.

fMRI Study

Dr. Coan created an ingenious experiment to study the neural mechanism or gate that reduced felt pain when someone is in the presence of a close friend or partner. Female volunteers would lay down in an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner to identify the tiny metabolic changes that take place in the active parts of the brain (a safe and noninvasive technique).

He attached electrodes to their ankles that would be used to deliver a small electric shock randomly during the experiment (painful for sure, but not dangerous). He did the research in three stages, first with a trusted partner holding the woman’s hand, then with a stranger holding her hand, and finally with the woman by herself.


The results were startling, with the self-reported and measured levels of pain increasing at each stage. The volunteers experienced the least amount of pain with a loved one (what researchers refer to as a safe and secure attachment figure), more pain with a stranger, and the maximum discomfort when alone.

After sifting through the data, the researchers made an unexpected conclusion about the brain. The baseline for the way the brain registers pain is to assume the presence of a social resource, with pain increasing as those resources were diminished, first with the stranger (less predictable) and finally while alone (no social resources, total isolation). In essence, neurologically, we have a baseline expectation of being with safe and secure others. That’s our default state. Therefore, things don’t get easier when we have reliable social resources; instead, they get harder when we don’t.

Dr. Coan named this model of brain functioning social baseline theory to underscore the game-changing clarity that the brain not only functions most effectively in a prosocial environment, but it assumes it is in one already. We are hardwired at birth to have safe and secure connections with others, and these connections are imperative to our survival, not just nice to have.

Impact of SBT in the workplace

Coan’s SBT model of brain functioning suggests that having available resources sets the most efficient metabolic cost for the tasks we face throughout the day because, Coan writes, “the brain construes social resources as bioenergetic resources, much like oxygen or glucose…To the human brain, social and metabolic resources are treated interchangeably.”

In other words, the human brain, in its evaluation of how costly tasks will be (and wanting to perform at the highest level of efficiency), sees social resources (other people) as metabolic energy. This means the effort required to accomplish tasks can be distributed to others in the group (like a healthy work team), and in turn reduces the individual’s perceived burden for doing the work.

Why SBT matters for your team

Psychologists would call these life-sustaining relationships safe and secure attachments. These attachments make the brain more efficient – turning trusted people into social resources that increase our mental capacity. The brain makes better decisions more quickly when it can do so with reliable others. Tasks not only feel more effortless, they are more effortless.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say I come to work with 100% of my mental capacity. Six months ago, my company hired Kate – she’s smart, hard working, and always has my back. Have you ever worked with colleagues like that? According to recent research in neuroscience, my brain sees Kate as an extension of my own ability. What’s remarkable then, is over the past six months, my metabolic capacity has literally expanded. I now have 150%. This is a case of 1 plus 1 equaling three.

But there is a flip side – what happens when I come to work one Monday morning and Kate tells me she’s moving? Will my mental capacity remain at 150%?

Now, I might drop to 60 or 70%, and the tasks I did easily last Friday are going to feel much harder and take longer to accomplish. Why does this happen? Because my brain sees Kate’s capacity interchangeably with physical resources. Kate was brain fuel for me, and now my tank feels depleted.

It is imperative that we have strong connections to feel safe and to do our best work. Creating a culture of engaged and highly engaged employees will help foster strong social connections between team members, and, consequently increase productivity, positivity, and retention in the workplace.

Key Takeaways

  • We are hardwired at birth for safe and secure attachments. Dr. Coan’s social baseline theory illustrates our natural need to depend on each other to lessen our felt sense of burden, either at home or in the workplace.
  • Your employees need social resources (e.g. their engaged coworkers) just as much as they need oxygen to breathe and glucose to survive. Other people provide metabolic energy for us to do our best work.
  • To employ SBT in your workplace, create a culture of engagement where team members know they can count on each other for support, encouragement, and positivity.