By now, you’ve probably heard or read about how smart folks who study the human brain have determined that big, important decisions are not made from a place of intellect, but from a place of emotion. In fact, the brain research community tells us, we actually have “two brains,” seamlessly managing their respective functions to help us evolved humans process the world around us.

The new brain, or frontal lobe, concerns itself with rational thought, decision making, memory, language, and other complex activities – more like data processing than base-level autonomous functions. Very much the thinking part of the brain. Rational. Analytical. Thoughtful.

The primitive brain, or amygdala, is the center of our emotions. It is primarily concerned with keeping us alive. Things like breathing, heart rate, fight or flight response,  procreation, and other deep-seated functions. Safety. Security. Survival.

Now consider that the fact that researchers who study employee engagement tend to define “engagement” as how we feel about work, not what we think about work. Therefore, it follows that to truly engage with people, we need to connect emotionally, not intellectually.

Now, here’s the conundrum. The primitive brain has no capacity for language. Let that sink into your frontal lobe for a minute.  Books, PowerPoint presentations, thoughtful discussions about employee engagement – it’s all Greek to the amygdala.

As leaders, how do we foster engagement when the primitive brain, the place from which scientists tell us we make decisions that we instinctively believe are most important to us, doesn’t know its dictionary from its thesaurus?

Here’s the theory we’re actively proving at CTLF: to realize the practical, functional benefits of engagement, we must first understand the emotional benefits that truly drive behavior.

Cool. What does that mean?

Many articles, like this one, tout the functional benefits of engaged employees:

  • Increased productivity
  • Better retention
  • Increased customer satisfaction
  • Lower absenteeism
  • Healthier employees
  • Fewer workplace injuries

The truth is, most employees aren’t really concerned about these things the way employers are. Consequently, there is no real motivation to modify a behavior or change a deeply held attitude. This outdated view that leadership is somehow about getting employees to do what’s best for the company vs. empowering individual decision making and encouraging and valuing their contributions is the crux of the problem. And while there is a lot of activity around “culture building” and “employee engagement” these days, the data is not that encouraging. Clearly, what business leaders have been instructed to do isn’t working.

To truly engage with employees, we must first stop regarding them as “employees” and start regarding them as people. People who have very real emotional needs – spoken or unspoken – as the rest of us. Consider what it would mean to your team’s level of engagement if you were first concerned with more fundamental human needs like:

  • Being heard and understood
  • Being esteemed by their employer, manager, and peers
  • Having a sense of belonging at work
  • Feeling safe contributing without the risk of rejection or ridicule

Maybe it’s time for you to approach the problem differently. CTLF actively creates opportunities to defy convention, expand your thinking, grow as a person, and experience authentic connection. How’s that for an engaging proposition?

Point to Ponder: As leaders in our organizations, the engagement buck stops with us. What holds us back from truly engaging with our employees and, in turn, prevents them from earnestly engaging in their work and the health of the entire organization?