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On the Trail of the Elusive Engaged Employee: A Radical Approach to Unleashing Workplace Potential

I was speaking at a conference, and it seemed like every second person was talking about the same thing; the elusive “engaged employee.”

It was at a dreary conference centre right near an airport, and I was there to talk about the neuroscience of motivation. I had flown interstate for this gig, and the only thing keeping me from falling asleep was the pure bewilderment I felt at the absurdity of it all. Nobody seemed to be saying anything that made any sense. Amongst all of the buzzwords and platitudes from the other speakers talking about metrics and rewards and special events to trick people into engagement, I felt like I was stuck in a bad episode of The Office where everybody had given themselves a ‘Best Boss’ coffee mug. Nobody was talking about anything that actually mattered.

As I stared across the barren landscape of like minded individuals desperate to bore me to death, my mind started to wander and I couldn’t help but think about how all of these approaches to work were based on the same outdated ideas of how organisations should run. The kind that were based on the outdated ideas of Taylorism and the Newtonian paradigm. The legacy of Taylorism, which views an organisation as a machine, has long been criticised for its focus on efficiency and productivity at the expense of human well-being. But despite these criticisms, many workplaces still cling to these outdated paradigms, failing to recognise that treating employees like cogs in a machine is not only dehumanising, but also counterproductive.

As an organisational neuroscientist, I spent years studying the workings of the human brain, and I know that the key to unlocking workplace potential lay in understanding the complex interplay between the brain, behaviour, and the workplace environment. And to achieve that, most people are still focusing on the wrong factor.

We’re searching so hard to find the engaged employee that we’re looking beyond the actual employee, and that’s where we go wrong.
Here’s a radical approach – treat everybody like a human.

Taylorism – the idea that an organisation is like a machine and that employees are just cogs in that machine – is a flawed concept. It assumes that people are purely rational beings, and that they will work harder if they are given the right incentives.

The truth is, we now know that the human brain is not a machine, but a complex and dynamic system that is constantly adapting to its environment. And if we want to unleash the potential of our workforce, we need to start treating our employees like the complex and dynamic individuals that they are. They are complex, emotional beings with needs and desires that go far beyond simple monetary gain. And when we treat them like machines, we are ignoring the very things that make them human.

The neuroscience backs this up. Studies have shown that when employees feel valued and respected, their brains release chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine – the same chemicals that are associated with feelings of happiness and pleasure. This, in turn, leads to increased motivation, creativity, and productivity.

So, what does it mean to treat employees like humans? It means listening to them when they have concerns, offering flexibility in their schedules, providing opportunities for growth and development, and giving them a sense of purpose beyond just making money for the company or for themselves.

It means acknowledging that work is not the only thing that matters in their lives, and that they have families, hobbies, and other interests that are just as important. It means recognising that they are not just cogs in a machine, but valuable contributors to the success of the organisation. Everyone is engaged differently, and that we need to adopt a personalised approach if we want to unlock the full potential of our workforce.

And there will be two main opinions on this. The first will ‘Well, duh,,,’ and to those I ask OK, but are you doing it? And the second will be sceptical and want a more authoritative approach. After all, this all sounds a bit touchy-feely, doesn’t it? But the reality is, this approach is backed up by hard science. It is not just some fluffy idea dreamed up by a bunch of hippies.

Take the time to get to know your team on a personal level, learning about their likes and dislikes, their passions and goals.

As organisations do this, they begin to notice a shift in the energy of the office. People started to smile more, to laugh more, and to take a genuine interest in their work. They began to feel valued and appreciated, and this leads to a newfound sense of engagement and productivity.

But this was just the beginning. You can go further to tailor your approach to each individual employee, taking into account their unique cognitive and emotional strengths and weaknesses. You can design tasks and projects that play to their strengths, while also challenging them to grow and develop new skills.

If you do this, employee engagement skyrockets, productivity soars, and the overall atmosphere of the office transforms from one of disengagement or false engagement to one of vibrant energy and enthusiasm.

By treating employees like the complex and dynamic individuals that they are, we can tap into their full potential and unleash the true power of our organisations. By doing this, we can TRULY engage people in a way that is meaningful to them, and not to us.

So, if you are looking for ways to unleash the potential of your employees, remember this: treating them like humans is not just a radical approach – it is the only real way forward.

Until next time keep questioning, keep exploring, and above all, keep that prefrontal cortex firing.

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