Today’s episode is all about Social Baseline Theory. We’ll talk about what it is and why it’s so important for leaders to understand.
Don: [00:00:00] I’m Don Rheem, CEO of E3 Solutions, and author of the book Thrive by Design. I speak across North America on the neuroscience of engagement at work. I’m passionate about helping leaders at every level to create engaging workplace environments where employees feel safe, recognized, and validated. Employees who feel safe at work are happier, healthier, and more productive. Each week my team and I take on topics impacting managers and offer solutions to your biggest workplace challenges. This is the Thrive by Design podcast.
Kelly: [00:00:39] Welcome to the Thrive by Design podcast. I’m Kelly Burns and I’m here with Don Rheem CEO of E3 Solutions.
Kelly: [00:00:48] We created this show to give managers, CEOs, and leaders the tips, strategies, and tools you need to create an engaged culture at work. Last week, we discussed the war on talent and what leaders need to do to foster the emotional velcro that keeps employees engaged. Today we’re discussing social baseline theory and how this theory plays out at work.
Don: [00:01:13] Good morning, Kelly.
Kelly: [00:01:14] Good morning, Don. In Thrive by Design, your book, you talk about relationship science. Can you talk more about that? What does relationship science mean?
Don: [00:01:23] It’s a phrase that I use in the book to describe a collection of empirically validated data that is pointing in a singular direction and that is, as human beings we’re hardwired as a species, as individuals, to connect and engage with other human beings.
Don: [00:01:41] In particular there was one piece of science fairly close to where we are here in Washington D.C., at the University of Virginia Charlottesville. There is a brilliant neuroscientist by the name of Dr. James Coan, who has developed what he refers to as social baseline theory. That is something that I talk a lot about in the book because it is so compelling for leaders to understand this drive to be a part of a group. Essentially what Dr. Coan is telling us is that Homo sapiens are hardwired as herd animals. We are hardwired to be in a group, in a tribe.
Kelly: [00:02:18] So how did Dr. Coan come to this realization to create social baseline theory and how do you think his theory really translates into the workplace?
Don: [00:02:31] There was there’s a lot of serendipity in his work. The basis of his experimental protocol was he would solicit volunteers – married women or women in relationships – and he would have them come into his laboratory and he would put them in an fMRI machine. When they’re in an fMRI, they can see a simple screen and X’s and O’s come across the screen. And he would tell them that about 40 percent of the time when you see an x you’re going to receive an electric shock.
Kelly: [00:03:07] What! Wait was he forcing them to go through this experiment?
Don: [00:03:13] No, they they volunteered for it which is amazing that people would. But they did and they had electrodes attached to their feet which is where the shock would be administered. Nothing that was going to cause damage or physical harm but…
Kelly: [00:03:26] Yeah, you’re saying that. You didn’t go through the experiment!
Don: [00:03:28] Certainly shocking to the system! He would he would bring them in. They’re in the fMRI machine, but they’re in the room alone. There’s no one else in the room with the fMRI machine and they see the X’s and O’s. And they see an X all sudden zap, they get this shock and what he’s doing in another room is measuring, watching the brain. An fMRI is a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine. They’re watching the brain’s reaction to the electrical shock and you can see the neurons explode like a firecracker and the pain centers of the brain. You can you can measure how painful that was to a human brain. That’s now the foundation, that’s the control test. This is how painful it is to receive this level of shock.
Don: [00:04:17] Then he makes an adjustment. Then a stranger comes into the room and the stranger holds her hand while she’s in the fMRI machine while she gets zapped. The X’s and O’s come across and zap, she gets zapped again. He’s measuring how the neurons react to the pain in this different iteration where a stranger is there and with her and she’ll she’s no longer alone.
[00:04:44] The level of pain inside the brain is diminished. It wasn’t it wasn’t as hurtful, it wasn’t as powerful as when she was in the room alone. And then and this is the key part, the stranger now leaves the room and into the room comes her partner. She knows it’s her partner and her partner is sitting there next to her holding her hand. She sees the X’s and O’s and then zap the electrical charge comes in and they’re measuring that. And in this case, the level of pain registered by the brain is significantly less than with the stranger.
[00:05:20] So you have the stair step decline – felt the most painful when she was alone. A stranger came in. Just the simple presence of another human being, that felt level of pain declined. And now she’s with what would be called her “safe and secure attachment figure”. And by the way these couples were assessed for having a healthy relationship. So she’s really glad that it’s her partner that’s in the room.
[00:05:46] What Dr. Coan then wanted to do, is he was trying to figure out initially what would be referred to as the “gate” that is the the blockage that made it feel less painful when someone else was in the room. He was searching for this neurological mechanism that interrupted the pain when someone else was in the room and he couldn’t find it and he couldn’t find it and he couldn’t find it. He really began to question what was going on. And then his team realized what was happening.
Don: [00:06:18] There isn’t a gate that makes it feel less painful when it’s a safe and secure attachment figures in the room. The baseline is that the brain assumes there would always be someone there. And that is the baseline. It’s when the brain realizes that it does not have a safe and secure attachment figure, that the level of pain goes up. It wasn’t that the same as your attachment figures somehow interrupted the pain. That’s what the brain assumed it was going to have someone that was there, that has your back, that’s right there with you. You’re not alone. He refers to that again as social baseline theory – that is the baseline for the brain is to have social connection.
Kelly: [00:07:00] So it’s not just that it’s good for us to be in strong social connection, but that we need it and that our brains expect it.
Don: [00:07:08] Yes. That every human being is born with the expectation, the need, The desire, to have safe and secure attachment figures. In fact in the field of social neuroscience, that we focus a lot of our work on they would say virtually every fold of cerebral matter in our head is dedicated to acquiring these safe and secure connections both at a at an intimate level, a personal level, but also at a group level. That is, I need to have a safe and secure attachment figure in my life. But I also want to be a part of a team.
[00:07:42] So if you think of it in a way as concentric circles, in that center circle I need someone who has my back, who is with me, and going to be with me forever that I can count on, that I can be vulnerable with, that I can load share with. This now is actually referred to as the science of love. Love that has traditionally been this thing that has been the the the the purview of poets and romantic writers, we know what love is. It is the hardwired need to have that someone there for you. Dr. Coan finds this not just at the interpersonal level, but that it’s also at the group level. And as he says we are at our core herd animals. We’re hardwired to be in a group.
Kelly: [00:08:24] So on this business podcasts if we didn’t just lose all of our leaders since you mentioned the “L word”…I’m curious if you can talk about how the idea of a romantic connection or love actually translates into the workplace. Because somewhere between the stranger holding her hand and the romantic partner holding her hand we get to a workplace where we need it, sounds like, and truly only thrive from safe and secure connections. How does that translate from a romantic world into a professional world?
Don: [00:08:58] We have one brain, one nervous system, one limbic system. The limbic system, that is this epicenter of fight-flight-or-freeze, it’s the threat detection system in the brain. It’s also the center of emotional processing in the brain. It does not know if it’s at home or at work. All it knows is whether or not these social beings around it are safe to be with. That’s its job.
Don: [00:09:22] I need to be able to determine, and in fact the brain has developed an ability to make this determination in three one hundredth of a second. This all goes on in the background of the brain. It is hardwired to decide “is this social being, this entity, this other person, safe to be with or not?” If it is, the limbic system actually stands down it can drop threat perception and when it does that, it actually opens up more metabolic capacity for the rest of the brain.
Don: [00:09:51] Let me state that in reverse. When someone goes to work and they work for a manager who’s inconsistent, unpredictable, has anger management issues, yells at them, doesn’t notice them, isn’t respectful, doesn’t validate them… The limbic system codes that as threat. As soon as it codes threat, it starts stealing energy from other parts of the brain to cope and deal with that threat.
[00:10:15] What does that mean for employees? IQ drops up to 11 points. They lose peripheral vision. They lose the ability and the desire to care and support others. I guess I’d want to come back to your question because it was a specific question. The same drivers that drive our need to have a romantic partner, an intimate partner, is simply the most intense form of a safe and secure connection. It’s intense. It’s palpable. It’s also typically physical. But when you think of concentric circles or the ripples of a pond out from that center point, we also need to have connections with others. We want to be in a group. This is another part of how we evolved, if you will. Human beings evolved in tribes and that now is just hardwired, seared into the brain.
Kelly: [00:11:06] You know this reminds me of a statement and a report that one of our former, I think the most recent former, U.S. surgeon general put out about the impact of emotional isolation and the epidemic that it is in American society today. Can you speak to that a little bit and how connected that is to social baseline theory?
Don: [00:11:28] This is a very interesting piece of work from this former U.S. surgeon general. Think back over the last three decades. And one of the things that has occurred over the last three decades is the advancement of technology and our ability to connect with others through technology digitally at no cost. I grew up we had issues, they were called long distance rates.
Kelly: [00:11:56] Not telegraphs?
Don: [00:11:57] Not telegraphs, not quite that old. But there were long distance rates. My parents wouldn’t let me call a friend in another county because it was 25 cents a minute. So you were limited. Today that’s completely different. One of my daughters was in Kenya recently and she FaceTimed me and she might as well have been in the room next door. It was totally free all the way across the globe.
Don: [00:12:20] So we all know how technology has exponentially increased our ability to connect over the last three decades. But something else has happened at the very same time. The number of people reporting to be pervasively isolated and alone has doubled in America from 20 percent of the population to 40. And this former U.S. surgeon general refers to this pandemic of isolation as the most serious public health risk facing America today.
Don: [00:12:49] Now people may scoff at that, but think deeply. What happens to people who feel pervasively isolated and alone?
Kelly: [00:12:57] Depression.
Don: [00:12:59] What’s happened to the teen suicide rate?
Kelly: [00:13:00] Absolutely.
Don: [00:13:02] Off label of drugs, opioids. Numbing this perceived sense of isolation. Alcoholism. Obesity. Overeating. When we’re alone one of the things people do is they eat to soothe themselves. They drink. They use pharmaceuticals. The point is we are becoming, it appears to the research, a more disaffected society. I remember growing up on my street I knew every family on our street. I’m sad to say as my daughters grew up here outside of Washington D.C., I’m not sure they knew more than three or four. It’s just it’s a different kind of world. What we’re seeing and we have seen with Millennials, for example, and Gen Z is they’re trying to recreate that group, that tribe, digitally through things like Facebook and Instagram and the social networks, which are very inefficient proxies of feeling a part of a tribe.
Kelly: [00:14:01] This reminds me of a conversation that we had in last week’s podcast about the survey question that we ask. It talks about “what’s one thing or what’s three things that make you love working at this company?” And one of the common responses we get is that it feels like family. That for me is an indication that workplace can be a proxy for safe and secure connections, for having a lack of emotional isolation in an employee’s life. Can you talk about that?
Don: [00:14:34] We love it when we see that because it demonstrates this emotional velcro that we we want to create. This is the challenge, one of the big challenges for leaders today at every level, especially managers running teams.
Don: [00:14:47] Previously they didn’t have to worry about whether people would come to work every day or every week because in a previous environment – literally almost 250 years of labor abundance – where if you had job is the most important thing to you was keeping it because there are so many people who were unemployed.
Don: [00:15:03] Today in a full employment environment, managers need to be able to create the conditions where employees look forward to coming to work. They have to want to come to work. They have to like coming to work and three years from now, maybe less, are gonna have to love coming to work. Because if they don’t they’ll be looking to work somewhere else where they can try to find that. This is part of our need to be apart of something but also to feel positive, to work and live in a positive environment. The research around positive leadership – something I hope we can talk about in a future podcast – is just remarkable in what happens. We want people coming to work and feeling comfortable with the tribe they’re in. And as Dr. Coan says, we’re herd animals. Whenever you thought we began, after that point we collected in groups to survive.
Don: [00:15:58] I’ve been lucky enough to be to East Africa a few times in my life and if you’re out there on the open savanna of the Serengeti or the Maasai Mara we always ask people “what were your chances of survival if you were out there alone?”
Kelly: [00:16:11] Not very good. Yeah, I wouldn’t last very long.
Don: [00:16:13] No, none of us would, or did. Which is the point! If we were with others, our chances of survival went way, way up. I mean literally all you had to do is outrun one person and you’d make it.
Don: [00:16:25] Now the point though is we lived in that environment for tens perhaps hundreds of thousands of years. That’s why all of us today, it’s in our genome, it’s on our biological operating system to get in a group. If you’re in a group, if you’re secure in a group, if you’re seen, if you’re noticed, if you’re valued by the group, your chances of success and survival go up. R.
Don: [00:16:50] But we don’t grow up in tight knit tribes today, but we do spend most of our time when we’re awake with other adults at work. Work is the new tribe for the 21st century Homo sapiens. All we’re trying to do is to help leaders understand what does the brain expect to find when it’s in that group.
Kelly: [00:17:07] Right. And if somebody does not, if employees do not feel that sense of tribalness, if they don’t feel that connection as you mentioned just a minute ago, they’re very likely to find another opportunity. It’s very easy for them to do so in this economy, but they also might just stay. They might just function at the most basic level, and not truly commit to the organization, not truly commit to their team or their manager. Having an employee who is just existing in the organization often is more of a drag on an employer than having an empty vacancy for them to find and fill. We sometimes use the phrase that it’s better to be underemployed than poorly employed. In many ways being poorly employed is a factor of having employees who do not feel that safe and secure connection in the workplace.
Don: [00:18:01] Yeah and that’s one of the reasons why we measure engagement in organizations. And when you measure engagement it looks like a bell curve. Most of the employees are huddled around the mean, but we have these outliers. We have highly activated and engaged people on the right side of the bell curve. On the left side of the bell curve, we have what we call the Actively Disengaged. It’s important for an employer to know that because, sure you could have 50 people out working in the warehouse, but if 25 of them are Actively Disengaged they’re only giving you a half day’s work for a full day’s pay. They’re much less likely to be worried about the quality of the product and how it’s packed, how it’s made, how it interacts with the client. They check in, check out. They’re present, but absent. .
Don: [00:18:48] It’s not just about having bodies in the room. It’s about what are those people doing? What’s their level of commitment? Are they volunteering their discretionary effort when they get there? There are employees today that have – the phrase it’s been used traditionally – is golden handcuffs. They’re staying at the organization because they’re paid so well they can’t yet find another place to go to be paid that, so they stay but are they engaged? Are they operating at anywhere near their full capacity? And the answer is no, they’re not right.
Kelly: [00:19:20] One other factor, I know we hear this from managers all the time, is: “You say that social connection is important but I’m an introvert. I don’t need that kind of thing. I don’t need to shoot the breeze with my co-workers and build connections outside of work with them. I have what I need.” What do you say to managers who have that kind of mentality?
Don: [00:19:43] There are a lot of them to do, and our data shows that. Yes, there are different personality types. There are lots of tools out there that organizations will use to get clear line of sight on that. There’s everything from Myers Briggs to DISC. We love using the Enneagram. It is true that an introvert thinks that they don’t need these connections, but what we know neurologically, neurochemically, is if they do. They simply want them perhaps that at longer intervals, or add a little bit more of a distance. That’s personality and that’s different from a core driver of behavior. So it is true that people see and interact with relationships differently. It’s like outer layers of the onion. At the onion’s core, we are all hardwired to have safe insecure connections with others and to be in a group.
Kelly: [00:20:37] I think one of the things that is really important for CEOs and leaders specifically to know when they’re thinking through that mentality between maybe it’s introversion/extroversion. “I don’t necessarily need the connections as an introvert”, is that it’s not about you. It’s not about what you need. It’s about what your employees need. Your employees might need more of the extrovert connection. But it’s not about introversion and extroversion. It’s about the core neurological drivers that give us that safe and secure feeling, that give us that sense of tribalness with our team members. So whether or not a manager feels like they specifically need that social connection is far less important to the kind of environment that they’re creating for their employees.
Don: [00:21:18] It’s interesting we do a lot of work in the construction space and you could go to one of these older construction workers and say, “Hey great job, Bob” and he’ll say “I don’t need your validation!” They actually push it aside and say “I just do the right thing and I don’t need anybody telling me I’m doing the right thing.” Cognitively, people do have different perceptions of how much recognition they need.
Don: [00:21:42] But what’s fascinating from from our perspective is regardless of the generation, or the occupation type, or whether the collar is blue or white, when people get recognition, neurochemically, there’s a little release of dopamine or oxytocin. Neurochemically it still feels better to the brain because we’re hardwired to be valued. The person might cognitively think I don’t need it, but boy if you watch what’s going on inside the brain, it’s remarkably similar.
Kelly: [00:22:12] Going back to Jim Coan’s experiment, his very interesting experiment of shocking women, you don’t figure out in that experiment whether the woman lying in the fMRI machine is an introvert or an extrovert. The pain centers of the brain react the same no matter which way they might fall on a personality scale. It’s not about personality. It’s about neuroscience and that’s what really drives engagement.
Don: [00:22:37] And this is why we want leaders, managers, HR directors, we want you leading beyond personality type, beyond personality assessments. Let’s take advantage of what the field of neuroscience has revealed to us about what the brain needs to thrive and we can bring that into the workplace and when we do people respond viscerally.
Kelly: [00:23:04] There’s a lot of people, and you’ve mentioned the multiple industries recently, who – especially the construction one that you just mentioned – you’re going to get some people who say “I’m not touchy feely. I don’t need to make you feel good for you to show up and do your job well.” What do you what do you say when people talk about the fact that they’re turned off by the concept of touchy feely?
Don: [00:23:26] Yeah, It’s either touchy feely or the whole “satisfaction” thing. They feel like employees are entitled. We talk about the brain. We’ve talked about the limbic system a little bit. There are really two parts of the brain that are really interacting and supporting each other. The limbic system which is the epicenter of emotion and fight flight or freeze and then the prefrontal cortex and neocortex where we do all our problem solving and analysis. All I have to do is look at the research to find out which part of the brain actually has what neuroscientists call control precendence – which part of the brain is actually in charge. And it turns out to be the limbic system. This is Nobel prize winning research in understanding how the limbic system interacts with the prefrontal cortex, especially around threat detection.
Don: [00:24:16] If I’m coming up with leadership theory and leadership practices, I think I want to go with the part of the brain is actually in charge and I want to spend a little bit more time with it. It doesn’t have to be touchy feely, but we need to open our minds and be more expansive about what emotion is in the brain. It’s not all touchy feely. Think of it instead of touchy feely, think of it in terms of connection.
Kelly: [00:24:40] So we have about five minutes before we wrap up and I want to get really practical here. We’ve talked about why social baseline is important. We’ve talked about the science that drives safe and secure connection for employees, but we haven’t really talked about how. How do we do that? Dr. Coan talks about the two question the brain is asking every day. I’m curious if you could talk about those two questions and then talk about how leaders can answer those questions for their employees as we wrap up.
Don: [00:25:08] Dr. Caon is paraphrasing in a way, the limbic system obviously doesn’t have a voice and its own intellect. But when they look at the data and they look at its performance, they say in a very simplistic term that the limbic system is asking two questions all day long. The first one. “What’s next?” And the second one “How am I doing?”
Don: [00:25:32] We talk about this in our Boot Camp for Managers, this daylong workshop we do to give managers the science behind employee engagement. We work with the managers to help them understand how to answer those two questions.
Don: [00:25:43] “What’s next?” The two most powerful things that we have found that answer that question in the most profound way is consistency and predictability. “Do I literally know what’s next?” There are leaders and managers out there that are very mercurial. They’re happy and positive one minute, they’re negative and disrespecting the next. That on/off hot/cold is crazy making to the limbic system. Managers, be more consistent and predictable in how you show up for your team and preferably with a positive frame.
Don: [00:26:17] Now the other question “How am I doing?” This isn’t about ego. This is about “Am I in?” You think of a brain hardwired to be in a group. It wants to know all the time “Am I in? Am I a member? Am I a valued member? Do they see me? Do they notice me? Do they know what I do?” This is where managers need to validate people. Validation isn’t about something that the employee did for you. Validation is because they’re a human being and they’re in your presence. So you say hello. You say good morning. You greet people. There is no condition on validating people. It’s not about what they did for you, it’s because they’re a human being and they’re near you. And we want managers to do that daily.
Don: [00:27:01] Recognition is a little bit deeper it is conditional it’s based on what employees have done for you. But we want managers looking for smaller increments of this discretionary effort that employees do and just recognize it. Say “Hey Kelly, thanks for doing such a great job on this podcast today.”
Don: [00:27:17] Now you know you may say, “hey that was a gratuitous gesture” but I know right now what’s going on neurochemically.
Kelly: [00:27:21] You saw me smile!
Don: [00:27:22] I saw you smile as a result of that! You may say “hey that was a tool, that was a technique, Don.” But your brain responded reflexively and it made you smile.
Kelly: [00:27:32] That’s really helpful. Don, thank you so much for the conversation today. I love hearing more about social baseline and the impact of the theory that Dr. Coan came up with that you have taken and implemented into the workplace for CEOs all across North America. I’m excited next week to talk about adult attachment theory, our other core science based theory that we bring to employees and organizations across America. But thank you so much for your time today.
Don: [00:27:55] This has been great. Thank you Kelly.
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