Striving to find a meaning in life is the most powerful driving force in humans. Acknowledging this as the key motivator for everyone involved in your business will help you to nurture the best achievements and results.
Neuroscientific research taking place around the world is beginning to piece together connections between the brain and behaviour, especially at work. This research is providing valuable insights into how to be a more effective leader. Understanding how our brains function, and the chemicals they release, is vital to delivering our strategies and goals successfully.
The best effects are achieved when you give employees a higher purpose, strong values and stretching goals. The three work together to create a context in which everyone feels worthy and is willing to make maximum effort for the success of the business.
Purpose changes your brain chemistry
‘When you have a sense of purpose, especially a sense of common purpose, your brain chemistry changes. These chemicals change everything – from your perception of pain, your ability to handle difficult and challenging environments, and even your health and well-being’, says Dr Duncan Banks, one of Britain’s leading neuroscientists.
One such chemical is a hormone called oxytocin (released by neurons in the brain), which goes into the bloodstream following positive social interactions and has a positive effect on the whole body.
Studies have shown that increased levels of oxytocin can decrease feelings of anxiety and protect against stress, particularly in combination with social support. It has a powerful effect on pro-social behaviours and has also been proved to increase levels of trust and reduce levels of fear.
‘For all these reasons, leaders need to think about whether they make their employees feel worthless or worthy’, says Dr Banks: ‘Do they make their employees feel a sense of common purpose, and part of a community? Do leaders communicate in the right way, involving people and listening to them, as well as persuading and encouraging them?’
Only by communicating effectively can leaders make their employees feel worthy and respected. The positive side effect will always be an increase in performance, because people who feel worthy are much more likely to give of their discretionary effort when called on to work harder.’
Strong, consistent values stimulate positive emotions
Hilary Scarlett, a UK-based consultant and author on change management and neuroscience, explains why organizational integrity – where espoused and actual values match – is another crucial element for employees:
‘Neuroscience identifies the negative impact of uncertainty on our brain. If we are told one thing, but see action supporting a contrary value, this creates uncertainty, which leads to a threat state. Having integrity is about fairness, and having a fair share of food and of warmth from the fire, is a basic survival instinct.
‘Neuroscience underpins the importance of a higher purpose for companies. But it also makes the case for engaging managers who make employees feel part of a team, who explain why employees are important, who live the values of the organization and respect how employees contribute to the organization’s goals.’
‘The challenge for leaders is how to create a brain-friendly workplace – one in which employees are excited by their work and willing to give greater discretionary effort.’
Having a clear set of goals gives our brain the certainty it craves
Leaders who encourage their people to work for a positive purpose are aligning themselves with how the brain works, and this increases their chances of success.
Our brains are wired to either avoid threat or move to reward. Avoiding threat produces all the wrong brain chemicals and behaviours.
And yet leaders put their people in this situation every day, either inadvertently or deliberately. Instead, effective leadership must be goal-focused.
Hilary Scarlett has been working with Professor Walsh of University College London to apply cognitive neuroscience to practical management tools.
She confirms that, although our brains have evolved, we still fundamentally have the same brain as our prehistoric ancestors, whose brains were wired to help them survive.
When faced with the choice of facing a threat or achieving a reward, it is much more important to avoid threats:
‘Our brains are prediction machines. They want to be able to predict and make sense of what is going on around us. Change, by its very nature, prevents our brains from predicting, and ambiguity is even worse: our brains really don’t know what to make of it.
‘All this means that the brain moves away from threats and towards rewards. When confronted with a threat, you become distracted, anxious, you see colleagues as more hostile, deliver a poor performance, and have a weakened immune system.’
‘When you are more positive and moving towards reward, you are more focused, more willing to collaborate, more able to learn, more innovative and creative, more willing to get involved and make a difference and, physically, you have increased resilience.’
So having a strong sense of purpose and a clear set of goals enables people to make more sense of what to expect, and therefore predict better. Aligned to the need to predict, our brains crave certainty.
It matters that we have a line of sight between our activity and the organizational purpose as it provides a sense of being valued and of status, because our work matters and makes a difference. Feeling valued puts our brains into a positive mindset,’ says Hilary.
Purpose also matters to the young
The so-called millennial generation now rank finding work that is meaningful as one of the top three factors determining their career success, with 30 per cent of millennials ranking purpose as the most important factor.
At the beginning of their careers, and thus an important engine of the economy in the decades to come, these young people are willing to make less money and work longer, non-traditional hours, as long as their work is personally meaningful. This was the finding of a study by the career advisory board at De Vry University in the USA.
So, being happy and purposeful at work really matters. Happy and engaged people are much more productive workers and will work both harder and smarter. As a leader, your job is to engage people and give them a greater sense of purpose.
When people find a sense of purpose, and begin to dream and chase positive goals, the benefits are limitless.
They change themselves, they better their families, they improve their communities, they help their organizations and companies to perform better, they help to create wealth and prosperity, and they contribute to society in innumerable ways.
About the author
This article has been written exclusively for ByteStart by Kevin Murray who has been advising leaders and leadership teams for three decades. He specializes in leadership coaching and strategic communication, and gives talks on leadership around the world. His latest book People with Purpose is out now, published by Kogan Page, priced £19.99.