Solving the Engagement Conundrum Through Brain Science

A contributor who's both a neuroscientist and an entrepreneur, argues that employers might consider creating "unfocus" time for employees.
Solving the Engagement Conundrum Through Brain Science
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Being fully engaged in a task feels invigorating. No matter how challenging it is, we just can’t peel our minds away from it. Whether we’re sitting at our desks or cooking dinner, we constantly ponder new ideas related to it -- both consciously and unconsciously.

Engagement makes us feel alive and filled with purpose. Yet despite the allure of this mindset, a recent Gallup poll found that a mere 32.6 percent of American workers surveyed were engaged at work.

Related: How to Make Employee Engagement a Top Priority

That's a problem because employee engagement boosts business results -- that's no secret. According to the Harvard Business Review, companies see both spikes in productivity and dips in turnover when employees are focused. Yet, even though those same benefits are abundantly clear, a U.K. study revealed that just 25 percent of companies surveyed said they had strategies in place to improve engagement among workers. 

The obvious takeaway here? The business world has an employee engagement conundrum on its hands. And that's where I come in: As a neuroscientist and an entrepreneur, I'm here to argue that brain science holds the key to solving the puzzle. Here's how that can work:

Trace engagement to its source.

Factors such as pay raises may drive engagement, but what creates engagement?

In fact, engagement is born inside an individual’s mindset. The core element that allows a person to feel engaged is the “self” -- and the fullest expression of one’s self requires a brain that is programmed for exactly that. This means that any sustainable engagement strategy must stimulate employees' brains. 

By reflecting on the findings of recent neuroscience research, leaders can practically incorporate the following three self-enhancing strategies into their practices and meetings:

1. Build compulsory “unfocus” time into the to-do list. Although engaged employees possess the ability to remain focused for long periods of time, the brain prefers to alternate between focus and unfocus, according to a study published on brain connectivity.

In fact, that connectivity features specific circuits devoted to each state of mind, and the unfocus circuits play a pivotal role: They relieve the focus circuits and prevent them from becoming exhausted. Further, they boost self-related brain activity.

Deliberately activating the unfocus circuits stimulates cooperation inside the brain, meaning that employees won't slip off into meaningless daydreams; instead, they will productively wander with an underlying direction.

Creating unfocus time can be achieved in several ways. As one example, leaders could encourage employees to practice positive constructive daydreaming: this could mean 15 minutes of permission to stop staring at the computer and instead turn their attention inward.

During this daily daydream, workers could choose to close their eyes or look out the window, as they dive into their own minds. The process could be enhanced if it centered around an inspired idea or wish. 

Related: 5 Companies Getting Employee Engagement Right

Some businesses have begun to recognize the important role of unfocus. Google, for example, allows employees to spend 20 percent of their time working on whatever they want. Some choose to pursue passion projects, while others opt to take naps. Software company Full Contact goes even further, offering employees a vacation allowance of $7,500 per person per year to ensure they unplug from work and unfocus. 

2. Encourage psychological halloweenism. 

Although stereotypes limit the way we think, there is one context in which they are especially helpful: psychological halloweenism. This is a term I coined that refers to the act of "trying on" different identities and mentalities. 

This practice is highly engaging and productive. A 2016 psychological study revealed that when people imagined they were eccentric poets, they were able to solve problems more creatively. However, when they imagined themselves as rigid librarians, the creative spark fell to the wayside.

Based on this idea, leaders who want their teams to become more creatively engaged could encourage them to imagine themselves as especially creative individuals. For example, they could act as if they were planning the first trip to the moon under an urgent deadline; they could, create “moonshots” and other similar terminology to bring the analogy to life.

This kind of intervention may seem counterintuitive when you're aiming for greater self-connection. After all, how can employees become more self-connected if they are pretending to be someone else?

But because this exercise stimulates the imagination, it  stimulates the brain's unfocus circuits -- and these circuits “scoop up” the less defined, more instinctual and intuitive aspects of who we are. Some authors refer to this concept as “primordial soup.” 

3. Correlate the brain to the internet of things. 

On the surface, it may seem as if the human brain and the internet of things share nothing in common. However, similar to an IoT device, the brain transmits electricity and can be wirelessly connected to other brains across small and large distances. 

If you build this correlation into your own employees’ understanding, you can start to ask and address relevant questions that enhance engagement. Companies such as Axelta and universities such as MIT have begun offering IoT courses to professionals for this very reason. 

Technology is developing at breakneck speed, and this constant motion can lead to pure distraction as employees chase one technology after the next. However, leaders can engage workers by asking them to slow down and investigate how specific devices are poised to disrupt their functions.

For example, with the ability to "beam" remote employees into meetings becoming a mainstream reality, asking a CFO to predict how this development could impact his or her department's budgeting practices would be a highly stimulating task.

This future-facing engagement strategy activates the brain’s time travel machine, bringing together elements of the past, present and future to allow for a more coherent sense of self, increased feelings of connectedness and greater engagement. 

Related: How the Internet of Things Inspired a New Startup Niche 

These are just three of many ways in which brain science can help entrepreneurs solve the employee engagement conundrum. Unfocused play with an eye on the future can reprogram employees' brains and result in greater engagement, productivity and a competitive edge.