If you’ve ever attempted to motivate an employee by focusing on their faults and insinuating that their job was on the line, and then found that their performance deteriorated, or that they became defensive and angry, you have encountered the brain’s limbic system.
The limbic system is the reason that employees who feel safe in their jobs and secure about their place in an organization perform better in the long run than employees motivated by fear. And for that, you can thank our ancestors – early humans whose high stress encounters involved life-and-death situations.
Pre-historic Homo sapiens, in their daily struggle for survival, needed an internal alarm system to be on hyper-alert for danger. Those whose brains recognized potential harm and prepared them for response fastest were most likely to survive. Thus, modern human brains were shaped by realities from 100,000 years ago to raise our heart rate, flood our cells with hormones and divert energy to our muscles.
The limbic system of the brain is responsible for this process, sometimes known as fight or flight response. It causes us to react to things like loud noises; sudden, unexpected movement; and foul smells. Moreover, the limbic system evolved to favor false positives. It might be inconvenient to mistake a stick for a rattlesnake, but the reverse could be fatal. Consequently, our bodies gear up for action more often to more apparent dangers than to real ones.
One more thing: the limbic system is a blunt instrument, quick and strong, but not every discerning. It responds to all dangers, emotional and psychological as well as physical, without making much distinction among them.
Fast forward to 2017: what does this mean for us in our workplaces today? Very few of us face mortal danger on the job, but we are encoded to over-react to potential threats – emotional as well as physical.
This means that your employees’ bodies react in just the opposite way you would like them to when they feel their jobs are threatened. Their body diverts energy from the thinking center of the brain to the emotional center, namely the part that controls aggression. They lose focus and become agitated. Their bodies want to either run or lash out, but certainly not react calmly and rationally. Any effort they make to restore balance to what the brain wants and what the job requires is emotionally draining.
Imagine a member of your team feeling that way day after day. The body is not designed to be on high alert uninterrupted for days or weeks. Consider how it would feel if you couldn’t shut off your fire alarm and it rang non-stop for hours on end. The stress that results could cause immense physical and emotional distress, and even serious health issues. That’s not a productive employee.
Make no mistake, this is not a reason to coddle employees; just the opposite. Employees need to be challenged to feel engaged and fulfilled, but they must have a sense of security in order to meet those challenges.
Organizational leaders can exploit this knowledge to great advantage. Creating a workplace that provides security and enhances worker productivity requires a concerted, long-term effort. It requires that leaders recognize employees’ intrinsic value to the company and commit to unlocking that value. Research shows that leaders who commit organizational resources to creating an emotionally safe work environment are rewarded with more loyal, dedicated employees, fewer sick days, better customer service and fewer errors and safety issues.
It’s as if your brain’s limbic system is telling you what’s good for your bottom line. Learn more in Don Rheem’s new book, Thrive By Design. Don offers managers and senior leaders deep insights into what drives employee performance from a brain-based perspective.