I recently moved into a new home that has a long, sloped driveway. It looked charming in the Zillow photos, but felt quite different when I had to drag the recycling bin up the hill every week. Now as I do this chore, I can almost feel my brain calculate the task and my thinking goes to, “There must be an easier way to do this.”
This last week, my wife and I were working together on some projects and she walked up the hill with me as I positioned the bottles, cardboard and junk mail for collection. I realized afterward the task felt effortless. Not a single thought about needing a better solution.
What was different? You might think I was pleasantly distracted by the conversation with my wife, which would be true. But the insights from this experience relate more to neurochemistry than verbal discourse. And there are profound implications for the workplace here as well.
No Man is an Island
It turns out the brain has a baseline, a norm, it assumes will be true when we accomplish the tasks in our day. This assumption is that we will perform our tasks with others, not alone. It is a social baseline. Dr. James Coan refers to this hardwired brain function as social baseline theory, now empirically validated in his labs at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, and others around the world.
Stand next to a trusted co-worker and the job literally takes less metabolic energy to complete. In addition, when we become accustomed to working with these reliable social resources, if for some reason they become unavailable (they quit, they’re reassigned, they’re on vacation), assignments that once we did with relative ease now feel more taxing. This is a hidden and largely ignored cost to teams and departments when A players depart – those “left behind” feel added burden in everything they do. Thus, employee engagement takes a big hit.
Social Animals Have Social Brains
Your brain, developed over countless years of human existence, prioritizes social connections to other humans. Researchers now say that everything the brain does is calculated through a relational lens. It has adapted to depend on hyper-cooperation with other members of our species to maximize success when facing the rigors of life.
When emotionally isolated, our body suffers. We are more likely to catch a cold, have a heart attack, suffer from depression, and die. More on this in my book, but suffice it to say, living in isolation, now considered a health pandemic in the United States, can be more damaging to our health than smoking.
Your Brain is a Gear in a Machine
We don’t thrive in social situations just because it feels good to be connected to others. The fundamental design of the human brain requires a network of human interaction. Here is how the Oxford Dictionary of Social Neuroscience describes it: “Our brains are not solitary information processing devices any more than the cell phone is a solitary information-processing device. The cell phone has been designed to connect to other cell phones, and its very existence and function depends on connection with other such devices.”
The point is, the human brain expects and relies on trusted relationships with others.
In the days of ancient humans hunting on the savannah, the social organization centered on the tribe, in which each member of the tribe depended on the other for survival. Today’s analog is the workplace, where most adults spend more of their waking hours than anywhere else. It’s not just about physical safety now, but our emotional security. The quality of our work relationships is critical for our species’ ability to thrive and perform at our best. The hills we face feel less steep, the work less arduous.
Ignore Our Social Baseline at Your Own Risk
Unfortunately, the conditions that exist inside typical workplace cultures today are rarely aligned with this understanding of what nurtures great performance. They are often based on a series of rewards and punishments that ignore what Social Baseline Theory tells us, what people’s brains demand.
The only way to build a lasting culture of excellence inside a workplace is to pass on leadership fads in favor of understanding and applying leadership science (like social baseline theory). Until leaders embrace a relational focus on their culture, their journey will be uphill, metabolically costly, and far less engaging for employees.