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How Can Work Save Our Relationships?

Hold up one hand. Place your thumb over your palm and roll your four fingers over your thumb. This is a crude representation of the brain. The four fingers represent the prefrontal cortex where we process our thoughts. The thumb represents the limbic system, the epicenter of fight, flight, or freeze.

Prefrontal Cortex: Intellect. Logic.
Limbic System: Feelings. Emotion.

What does your limbic system feel like when you go to work each day?

For 70% of Americans - not good. 

Toxic managers, complaining coworkers, feeling undervalued - a negative culture like this has neurological consequences. When we don’t feel safe, the brain reacts within 3/100’s of a second.

As the limbic system perceives threats, it hijacks mental bandwidth. Then we struggle to respond or cope with the potential danger. When that happens at work, employees lose focus, feel unsure or defensive, and have less mental capacity. When this happens at home, at school, in sports, wherever we are, the results are the same.

The fact is, the limbic system doesn't know if it is at work or at home, it just knows whether it feels safe. Why are so many people unhappy with their jobs, and consequently, their lives, and what can we do about it?

The answer begins in the brain.

Human beings are hardwired to connect with others. We are, at our core, herd animals.

Now, for the most part we don’t grow up in tight knit tribes anymore. But where do we spend most of our time while awake? Work!

Now imagine for a moment your ideal work environment. A place that energizes you and where you feel proud to contribute to each day. Imagine that as a society we looked forward to going to work on Monday with the same enthusiasm we have on Friday afternoon.

A job where we thrive and where we can find meaning and purpose would leave us happier and healthier. We would become better partners, parents, and friends to those we hold most dear.

In a few places this ideal environment already exists. But it’s the exception, not the norm. How did we get here?

Picture me standing on a timeline, the future is to my right and the past to my left. Let me walk into the past about 200 years. This is when we began the shift from an agricultural economy to the industrial age.From this point until today there has been one constant that allowed most employers to disregard the emotional and physical well-being of employees.


There have always been more people than jobs.

If you were lucky enough to have a job in this era, what was the most important thing to you? Keeping it! More than security, a job equated to survival -- the ability to house and feed your family. Even under the most toxic work conditions, millions of people showed up to work every day.

This overabundance of labor allowed employers to largely ignore the fundamentals of what human beings needed to perform at their best. If someone couldn’t handle the punitive environment or complained, they could easily be replaced.

Three things will change this forever: a crippling labor shortage, a new generation of workers, and the adoption of what neuroscience now tells us people need in order to thrive.

First - the labor shortage.

The era of labor abundance is over. We are on the cliff edge of the most severe talent shortage we have ever faced. In February 2018 alone the U.S. added over 300,000 new jobs, which brings us to a 17 year low in unemployment. This talent shortfall will force organizations to think in new ways about how best to attract and retain workers.

Second - the changing generations.
Millenials and Gen Z are now the largest segment of the workforce, and with them comes a new perspective on work. They don’t work simply to survive, they want to find freedom and fulfillment in what they do. They work to enrich their lives - and this world - with social good. Most will recoil at toxic managers and workplace dysfunction. In fact, many already are doing just this - which is in part why their average job tenure today is just over two and a half years.

Which brings us to the third point - the adoption of neuroscience in the workplace.

The hierarchical, top-down, punitive model of leadership has long outlived its effectiveness. Employers need to reimagine the workplace paradigm, to bring us closer to what neuroscience now tells us every employee needs in order to thrive. That’s why the future of work will be defined more by how it feels than how it pays.

The future of work will be defined more by how it feels than how it pays.​

In this new era of work it is critical that we understand relationships are everything.

Relationships. Are. Everything.

Regardless of your background, from cradle to grave, that's how our brain operates. Every fold of cerebral matter in our head is dedicated to connections with other humans that are reliable and trustworthy.

Psychologists would call these life-sustaining relationships are called safe and secure attachments.

These attachments make the brain more efficient - turning trusted people into social resources that increase our mental capacity. The brain makes better decisions more quickly when it can do so with reliable others. Tasks not only feel more effortless, they are more effortless.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say I come to work with 100% of my mental capacity. Six months ago, my company hired Kate - she’s smart, hard working, and always has my back. Have you ever worked with colleagues like that?

According to recent research in neuroscience, my brain sees Kate as an extension of my own ability. What’s remarkable then, is over the past six months, my metabolic capacity has literally
expanded. I now have 150%. This is a case of 1 plus 1 equalling three.

But there is a flip side - what happens when I come to work one Monday morning and Kate tells me she’s moving? Will my mental capacity remain at 150%? No, I might drop to 60 or 70%, and the tasks I did easily last Friday are going to feel much harder and take longer to accomplish.

Outside of the workplace, the need for human connection is profound. There is a pandemic of loneliness spreading across America with serious health implications. There is some irony here; at the same time technology has exponentially increased our ability to connect over the last several decades, a pervasive sense of feeling alone and isolated has doubled from 20 to 40%. A former U. S. Surgeon General calls this pandemic of loneliness one of the most dangerous public health threats facing America. Where is the biggest opportunity to forge safe and secure relationships today? At work.

There is a pandemic of loneliness spreading across America with serious health implications.​

It’s funny, business has used science in almost every function of the workplace with the exception of human relationships. That’s why I wrote a book about this, Forbes recently published.

My team and I have worked with thousands of employees across nearly every industry. We ask them to take a survey that measures key drivers of human behavior. We found that when you measure engagement, the results looks like a bell curve.

The A and B players are in the green shaded area. These are the individuals who consistently go above and beyond. They are supportive and caring of colleagues and have connected with their work tribe in meaningful ways. The C and D players come to work primarily for a paycheck. Some of you may have to work with these grudge-collecting, victim mentality, always complaining, glass half empty people. It’s painful! And their negativity is contagious and exhausting.

When you equip managers with science-based relational skills, the transformation in a culture is nothing short of remarkable. Here’s what has happened across all of the companies we worked with over their first four years. The expanding green bars below represent a 75% increase in employee engagement, and as a direct result, employee well-being.

We teach leaders how the limbic system is constantly focused on two survival issues - threat detection and the need to belong. One neuroscientist characterized it like this: The limbic system is always wondering, “What’s next?” and “How am I doing?” Leaders can make the workplace feel much safer by simply focusing on how they can better answer these two hardwired brain imperatives.

What’s Next?
You have to be consistent and predictable to those you lead. Be more inclusive, share more of what the next week and month look like. Talk about their future in the company -- what’s next for them on their career path?

How am I doing?
There are three essential things every manager can do to answer this question for employees.
First, Validate. We need to let others know every day we see them and that they matter. “Hello, how are you this morning?” Even simple direct eye contact with a smile when you pass someone in the hallway is enough to signal they mean something to you.

Second, Recognize! Every week leaders need to find some example of discretionary effort to highlight. The more specific the better, “Ed, thank you for getting that proposal out so quickly -- it helps show how responsive we are.”

Third, provide constructive feedback - not constructive criticism. This is transformational. Effective feedback is an ongoing, supportive two-way conversation between leaders and their employees.

We all could do a better job of holding others accountable without being negative. Anything overtly critical is a punch to the brain. The key is to redirect, not shame or disparage. In any relationship, it takes 5 positive interactions to neutralize 1 negative.

Five to one.

In any relationship, it takes 5 positive interactions to neutralize 1 negative.​

When leaders become more intentional about creating a relational culture, the felt experience of going to work shifts in more virtuous and profitable directions. When this happens, all of our relationships benefit as our brain is more focused and present, which makes our hearts more available to those we love. This is how work can help all of our relationships.

To know the quality of your culture whether at work or at home, just answer this question: “What does it feel like to be here?” Happy, fulfilled? Anxious, fearful? Your answer to this question, how you feel, predicts your behavior. Emotion drives behavior.Until leaders can improve the emotional safety most people feel at work, employees will continue to underperform.

To know the quality of your culture whether at work or at home, just answer this question: “What does it feel like to be here?”

But when employers shift to a proven, better model of leadership, people will be healthier, more productive, innovative, and supportive to others in the tribe. And in this era of labor scarcity, businesses will be more compelling, competitive, and successful.

You may be thinking much I what I’ve shared is common sense. To the brain -- it certainly is. But here's the rub for those of you who think you know all this already. Common sense is NOT common practice. We can all do more.

Common sense is NOT common practice. ​

The future of work will indeed be defined more by how it feels than how it pays. This has always been the case - only now science shows us exactly the conditions where we will all, truly, thrive by design.

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