A Simple Brain Hack That Boosts Workplace Engagement

Knowing how your brain works under stress can help you manage those unproductive responses that add up to a lack of engagement on the job.

A Simple Brain Hack That Boosts Workplace Engagement
[Photo: DarkShadow/Getty Images]

No matter which survey you consult, many U.S. workers aren’t engaged at their jobs. According to Gallup’s 2014 “State of the Global Workplace” survey only 34% of respondents say they are engaged at work, while a recent study by The Marcus Buckingham Company, a management consultancy, found only 19% of U.S. employees reported being involved, enthusiastic, and committed.


Among the reasons employees aren’t engaged are dissatisfaction with pay, heavy workloads, and the attendant lack of work/life balance, as well as the lack of opportunity to advance. All this adds up to stress. As many as 83% of Americans said they were stressed by at least one of those factors on their job. That chronic low-level angst sets our brains into flight, fight, or freeze mode.

Steve Sims, a workplace behavior expert and chief product officer for Badgeville, a gamification software startup, explains that the result is a threat and reward response. “The thought behind threat and reward response in evolutionary psychology is that humans move toward things that are pleasurable and away from things that are threatening or painful,” he tells Fast Company.

Sims posits that if we humans haven’t evolved beyond running away from unpleasant scenarios toward the things that make us happier, wouldn’t it be easier to boost worker engagement by hacking this impulse?

Understanding Our Flight, Fight, Or Freeze Reactions

Here’s how he unpacks the knee-jerk reactions that occur when we use our unproductive “critter brain” on the job. The mental sandwich made up of our primitive, reptilian brain and our emotions-driven mammalian brain triggers what’s called an “Amygdala Hijack.” Sims explains that is the scientific description for the panic that sets in to the amygdala region of the brain and triggers panic.

Sims says, “Perception of threat results in a quick and severe emotional reaction: Your heart rate quickens, your breath becomes shallow, blood travels to the places that need it most to ensure survival.” The idea for primitive humans was to believe a snake in the road was real, and if they din’t react quickly enough, they could die, he explains.

Chasing pleasure also has physical and emotional effects, says Sims. “Your skin may flush, you feel elation, dopamine is released leaving you wanting more,” he points out.


Snakes and other animals don’t live in the modern office, but their human counterparts–the toxic boss, the hyper-competitive colleague– can trigger the same responses. Sims cites workplace experts who observe that threats to  status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness, and fairness are all stress-inducing. Criticism from a boss or a peer, loss of status, can additionally impact an employee’s well-being and their ability to engage.

“The psychological and physiological benefits of pursuing rewards are also felt in the workplace,” he notes. Success, praise, recognition, even mastering subject matter are all motivational factors.

How To Notice And Manage The Signals

Knowing that humans are driven by this threat and response, Sims believes managers should try to be even-handed and consistent and try to focus on the positives such as the people or teams who are doing well. Says Sims, “They should try to avoid criticizing or calling out individuals in a negative way as that may affect perception of their status, autonomy, certainty, relatedness, or fairness.”

Unfortunately, managers are often just as overworked as their staffs. They don’t always have a handle on the threat signals they may be unconsciously sending out. Sims says that to combat this lack of awareness, it’s important to watch the signals given off by their teams.

“The response to a threat is generally intense and shorter than most people think, and can happen in a couple of seconds,” he says. Look for quick reactions such as wincing and withdrawing as opposed to leaning in and listening.

Managers aren’t solely responsible for inducing the threat or reward response. Some company cultures are designed to encourage internal competition. But Sims says competition can often be seen as a zero sum game, and losing can be painful. “If you are not performing well, thoughts may run through your head like, ‘Can I catch up, and what happens if I lose?’” he explains.


The anxiety can ratchet up if the stakes are high such as when a bonus or promotion hangs in the balance. If a manager or an employee is feeling such a status threat, Sims notes that while there is no one solution guaranteed to work for every personality, several approaches can help them to come out of the reactive critter brain and into a place where they can have an intelligent dialogue. He recommends:

1. Remove yourself from the environment if possible. This will help you calm yourself down.

2. Breathe. Breathing deeply can help slow down the response you are having.

3. Put in strategies to deal with the threat response beforehand. You can try to use the more analytical (slow thinking) part of your brain to help control some of your fast thinking responses. Try to be on the lookout for the threatening behavior and have a plan of how you are going to deal with it if/when it happens. This can often lessen the response.

4. Attempt to solve the problem. Maybe you need to communicate with your boss that they are stressing you out. In that case, find a method to communicate and give yourself time (draft an email, write a note, practice what you are going to say or send). Then review it. Then sit on it for a while. You can then decide later what is the right course of action to take.


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.