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Understanding the brain is critical for your success as an organisation 

This blog article focusses on some groundbreaking scientific findings about the human (and organisational) brain and how these impact employee engagement and thus productivity and ultimately the ‘bottom line’.

(This overlap between the management sciences and neuro sciences are referred to as Neuro-Leadership.)


Our previous newsletter on Employee Engagement brought encouraging feedback and some interesting discussion - thanks to all who participated. The second quarter of the year is gone and generally our sense has been that the indicators and emotions (maybe World Cup supported), have favoured South Africa compared to its major trading partners. At Strategic Human Capital Consulting we have experienced it as a time of exciting growth. Just to name one development on our side: we are now accredited providers of the Barrett Value Centre culture assessment tools, which we believe are a great addition to our existing strategic analysis offering – more about that in a later newsletter!

With so many topics close to our heart it is often difficult to decide what to focus on in newsletters. In this one we would like to share with you some major new scientific findings on the human (and organisational) brain and how these impact employee engagement and thus productivity and ultimately the bottom line. (This overlap between the management sciences and neuro sciences are referred to as Neuro-Leadership.)


In a technology and bottom-line driven, share-analyst influenced world one can easily make the mistake of thinking that organisations are predominantly driven by bits and bricks. However, people ultimately make organisations successful – physical, emotional, spiritual human beings that are happy and productive. If that is true, what goes on in the average employee’s mind is of some level of importance for organisational leadership.

For generations now various psychometric analyses have been available to help make sense of the human brain and mind, provide indicators of potential, and give an understanding of the individual. However, new technology is providing a much deeper (and generic) understanding of the human brain, the link between brain, emotion and behaviour, and the link between individuals’ brains.


Developments in the use of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technology have enabled scientists to understand and track the brain processes behind emotions and actions with a much larger level of clarity. Most of us are familiar with brain scanning type technology that to date has mainly been used for diagnostic purposes in hospitals. Traditional MRI technology makes use of powerful magnets to give a very clear depiction of the brain. The fMRI added massive computing power to this and yields video type images that can in real time show which different parts of the brain light up (or present the highest levels of activity) when we, for example, feel sad, happy, fear, or are communicating with someone. This collaboration between neuroscientists and psychologists is literally, on a daily basis, providing new levels of understanding of the brain and how it impacts organisational life.


On a simplistic linear scale brain reactions can be categorised as threat or reward responses. We naturally veer towards those activities and situations that give rewards and away from those that seem threatening. So called threat responses originate or are driven from the primitive brain, which includes issues of hunger, safety, health and procreation. If any of these human survival needs are not met or threatened, the primitive non-thinking brain overrides the thinking brain. Under stress it not only reacts much faster and literally short circuits the thinking processes, but as it prepares the body to ‘fight or flee’ it redirects oxygen and glucose from non-essential organs, including the working memory that processes new information and ideas. So the bigger the threat or perceived threat, the more the brain’s analytical thinking and problem solving ability (sophisticated mental capability) are shut off or impaired.

What fMRI technology now shows us is that the brain reacts exactly in the same way when social needs are not met: in other words being ostracised, treated unfairly or working in an authoritarian fear based environment, activates similar neural patterns and responses to feeling physically threatened, with obviously the same physically limiting consequences i.e. less thinking, less creativity and lower energy.

A reward response on the other end of the scale provides more cognitive resources by opening up access to the pre-frontal cortex or thinking brain – people are more creative, have more insights and ideas and organisations are generally more productive. This happens when people feel good about themselves, safe, fulfilled and cared for. If engagement is to be plotted on this scale, highly disengaged will lie on the fear response side and highly engaged on the reward response side.


The SCARF model (referred to in our previous newsletter) was introduced by David Rock to analyse and describe five different social states of being that scientists have identified as impacting an individual’s (and thus an organisation’s – see below) relative position on the threat vs. reward response scale, or similarly on the disengaged vs. engaged scale. This can now be accurately tracked with the fMRI technology discussed.

The five states or areas of social being are: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness.


Research shows that all human beings subconsciously compare their status to those around them and the realisation that they compare unfavourably, or when status is threatened, results in a brain threat response image with hugely elevated cortisol levels. Contrary to normal belief this perception of status is not only satisfied by hierarchical promotion, rather research has shown that even a mere “good job, well done” activates the same perception of status reward regions of the brain (as does mastering a new skill and achieving progress). When organisations are rank and position driven, it will stimulate fear responses amongst all those employees not in the pound seats or inner circle.


When an activity like learning to drive becomes hardwired into the brain the process shifts into a kind of autopilot subconscious memory. However, when I have to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, the brain signals an error: “you are acting contrary to well established patterns” and records a threat response. Though not all uncertainty leads to an energy draining threat response, and though individuals clearly respond differently to different levels of uncertainty and change, if the perceived uncertainty gets out of hand the brain’s threat response reaction organically limits focus and performance. Transparent practices and the sharing of strategies and reasons for actions (like change) can go a far way to creating a knowingness that facilitates a brain reward response rather than a threat response because of uncertainty.


Research in animals has shown that the degree of control, when confronted by a stressful situation, determines whether or not that stressor undermines ability to function. Being micro managed is a good example of a situation that can generate a threat response because of the perception of reduced autonomy. Managers will be wise to explore ways of giving people choices and a certain level of latitude to achieve their work outcomes, rather than erring on the side of over regulating, micro management and limiting, individual autonomy. Again, this is relative to status and position and never absolute.


A strong threat response is aroused when people feel cut off from social interaction. However, as social beings we do not connect automatically with all other human beings. The brain’s ability to feel trust and empathy for others (prerequisites for collaboration) is influenced by whether they are perceived to be part of the same group – friend or foe. This takes time to establish and team grouping exercises should be focused on creating opportunities for developing real knowingness amongst diversity. The immersion approach of simply dumping groups together can trigger major counterproductive threat responses in some participants.


A perception of unfairness triggers a strong threat response whilst fairness has shown to trigger the same reward fMRI response as eating chocolate elicits. Fairness is however, like status, experienced in relative terms, i.e. we feel more satisfied with a fair exchange that offers less compensation than an unfair exchange that offers substantial compensation. Fairness is served by sharing information timeously and openly – even cutbacks can be tolerated if perceived to be for a compelling reason and handled fairly.

So why is this important?

Being aware of the social state stressors and how they impact individuals is a good starting point for making the knowledge work for your organisation. The SCARF model gives a handy tool against which to measure decisions and actions. A merger is a good example of a situation where all five of the states are potentially negatively challenged with the resultant stress responses and consequent lack of productivity, loss of energy and reduced engagement levels. However, nothing that dramatic is necessary to impact productivity. Just think how one’s fear-stress response in morning traffic can influence your whole day. Wise managers make sure they reduce threat states in the organisation and in leaders’ behaviour.


Leaders are not immune to the dynamic of the SCARF states, rather their behaviours have far more impact as it is picked up, interpreted and responded to by others down the rank in the organisation. This is where the fMRI technology brings some further fascinating insights into what Daniel Goleman calls the ‘contagious nature’ of emotions, or the spreading of emotions ‘like a virus’.

We know that spending time with happy people makes us feel happy and vice versa. But now there is a scientific explanation for it to be found in what scientists call mirror neurons. For example, if two people are deeply involved in a discussion with one telling the other about a very traumatic experience, you would by now expect the teller’s fMRI to pick up brain activity in the specific area that presents the traumatic emotions. Correct! However, the important additional finding is that the listener’s brain mirrors that reaction and, though not as strongly as the teller’s, lights up in exactly the same areas as the teller’s brain. The listener is unknowingly 'infected' by the emotions of the teller! Neuroscience has concluded that the brain’s very design makes it sociable such that it is drawn into a “brain to brain linkup whenever we engage with another person”.

The leader’s role in an organisation is to manage and direct the social economy that exists between members and their interaction with each other and the organisation and model the values and behaviours with which you want to ‘infect’ your organisation. The SCARF model provides important guidance in this process as well as great insight into some of the most dangerous emotional traps for the social economy.


Strategic Human Capital Consulting's approach to the strategic management of human capital is a holistic comprehensive one with a strong focus on four elements:

1) in-depth strategic analysis, including the gathering of data and its interpretation;

2) proposing appropriate strategies and designing programmes and processes based on such analysis;

3) implementing programmes, workshops and coaching that assist a business in achieving its organisational strategies;

4) tracking and measuring impact and suggesting further shifts.


Managing with the Brain in Mind, David Rock, strategy+business, Issue 56, 2009
Social Intelligence – the New Science of Human Relationship, Daniel Goleman, Bantam Book, 2006
The Neuroscience of Engagement, David Rock and Yiyuan Tang, NeuroLeadership Summit, 2009
NeuroLeadership Summit 2009, Session Guide and USB,, Los Angeles

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