Regardless of the state of the labor market, organizations generally want to keep their high-performing employees. That means keeping them supported and engaged, so they’re motivated not only to stay, but to keep making their outsized contributions. Experts believe that we can learn a few things about managing rock-star employees from the world of neuroscience.
High performers may have stronger neural connections related to their jobs because their engagement and mastery of tasks strengthen them, says Jason Jones, founder and CEO of LeaderPath (which uses evidence-based methods to improve workplace performance), and author of Activator: Using Brain Science to Boost Motivation, Deepen Engagement, and Supercharge Performance. They may have greater process expertise, knowledge, problem-solving skills, or the ability to innovate, which can enhance motivation and performance, but may also lead to a greater risk of boredom in the wrong environments.
While it’s not realistic to expect managers—or even high performers, themselves—to become brain scientists, cribbing a few tips from this sector can help keep those lights on. Here are a few things that neuroscience tells us high performers need.
Threats come in different forms, and none of them are good for engagement or motivation, says HR expert Christy Pruitt-Haynes, a consultant at NeuroLeadership Institute, a global neuroscience-backed consultancy that works with Fortune 100 companies. When a threat is perceived, we shift cognitive resources to minimizing that threat, and tend to be less collaborative. “So, what managers really need to understand is how each of their team members are aligned to process threat and reward, so we can move them toward that reward state and away from that threat state,” she says.
Pruitt-Haynes points to the SCARF acronym, which includes five types of social threat team members may experience at work:
- Status: Is the employee getting the same respect as others?
- Certainty: Does the employee feel like they have the information they need to do their job and some assurances of what will happen?
- Autonomy: Does the employee have the ability to influence their own actions and decisions?
- Relatedness: Does the employee have a sense of connection with coworkers?
- Fairness: Does the employee have the same opportunities as coworkers?
Understanding and support
Neuroscience-based mindset coach Kevin Bailey, cofounder and CEO of Dreamfuel, a high performance and mindset coaching company, explains that the mind has prosocial networks that help people collaborate and work well with teams. It also has defensive networks that are about protection and keep us skeptical of situations, especially when threatened.
When the nervous system is processing situations, there are four responses: “Fight” and “flight,” which are commonly known, are sympathetic responses, which can cause the release of adrenaline and cortisol. Another state is “freeze.” (Think: stage fright, where you may have trouble speaking.) But the fourth state is “focus,” which is a restful state of consciousness. When you understand these responses and how your team members typically exhibit them, you can help them move from negative responses and emotions to more positive ones using tools like visualization, reframing, and others, he says.
Trust and a mission
Trust is another factor that is important for high-performing employees, Jones says. The best way to build trust with a team member is to trust them first. Appointing a team member as an expert on your team, helping them become a mentor to others, or putting them on some sort of mission are all actions that indicate a measure of trust and respect in the employee and their ability.
“They really connect with the fact that this is a big deal,” Jones says. That may also mean that you give them more freedom and autonomy to do their work and find the solutions for which you’ve asked.
“I firmly believe that coaching the high performer is extremely important to management,” Jones says. But coaching is most effective when it reinforces performance facilitation and partnership versus micromanagement or control. “The brain of these high performers, especially if they’re younger, will rebel,” he says. “Their ‘primal brain’ will kick in to fight or flight if they perceive threats, or a lack of safety,” he says. Focus on reaching goals and partnering together to help that person be their best, Jones suggests. Ask questions and use brainstorming and scenario testing to discover and explore ideas and approaches. Treat your high performers more like partners than subordinates, he says.
Positive, stable cultures
“In any and all situations, regardless of environmental factors within the team, you’re trying to give them the ability to stay stable and centered,” Bailey says. But that can be hard to do in chaotic environments. One way to create an environment where high performers thrive is to create a culture of gratitude, he says. “Not only does it does it grow the prosocial networks of the brain; it also facilitates dopamine,” he says. “Your dopamine is the molecule of motivation and. obviously, an important molecule of performance.” Acknowledging small wins, praising effort, and extending other forms of recognition and reward gives the recipient “a small pulse of dopamine,” which can spur motivation and help them perform even mundane tasks with more joy, he adds.
By creating environments that support your team members in the ways they need not only helps you keep your best employees, but it may just give other team members’ performance a boost, too.
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