Startups: Got exhausted employees? Look to brain science

By Editor January 13, 2016

BradyWilson.jpgYou’re a startup and your employees are fully engaged!

In fact, your team raves about your company to anyone who will listen. Opportunity is everywhere, and the work is exciting.

Unfortunately, if you are like many burgeoning startups, your people are likely wearing multiple hats, doing whatever it takes to get things out the door–and there are little if any systems and processes to support their work.

The problem is that once the excitement dies down, start-ups often see employees shift from being overwhelmed to being chronically run down, dangerously depleted of energy.

Here’s how it happens. According to science, when the brain is in overwhelm mode, every single concern becomes magnified, and every irritation becomes amplified. This flips a switch in the brain when people shift operations from the parasympathetic nervous system (‘energy conservation mode’) to the sympathetic nervous system (‘energy guzzling mode’).

So, while these employees may still find the work interesting and continue to sing the praises of their employer, the end result is pure mental and physical exhaustion.

You may be asking yourself, why does all of this matter?

Unfortunately, when we are low on energy, the first thing we lose is our ‘executive function’–the part of the brain that allows us to focus, regulate emotions, prioritize, plan, make decisions, and take action. In other words, your employees’ survival-level thinking may be functional, but their mind’s power tools fail to operate: Tools that enable them to think strategically, collaborate broadly, communicate clearly, and execute decisively.

Without a well-fueled brain, a person is unable to think innovatively–a key factor in determining the success of any company. Without this ability collectively, a depleted workforce can create an ongoing system where organizations are constantly resorting to quick fixes, workarounds, and reactive firefighting.

And in today’s competitive marketplace, effort without innovation–even from the most engaged and loyal of employees–just won’t cut it.

Fueling the Executive Function

In a previous StartUp Beat article, I discussed the power of conversation within organizations. Science shows that meaningful, face-to-face conversation that demonstrates value and respect releases high-performance hormones in the brain, boosting the brain’s processing power by forming a feel-good energy cocktail of connection, calm, concentration, creativity and curiosity; promotes trust, deepens the leader-employee relationship, and helps to create a much greater sense of agency in others.

The good news is that conversation, which creates natural opportunities to unlock insight and possibility in employees’ minds, is just one way business leaders can fuel the executive function.

Here are three other ways, based on brain science, that you can energize employees—using conversation to get the proverbial ball rolling!

Target emotion, not logic

The limbic system—the brain’s emotional center—defines what we experience as reality. Therefore, to inject employees with energy in their day-to-day jobs, managers must appeal to the emotional brain.

Unfortunately, too often employee engagement initiatives target the rational brain. For example, leaders who hold ’employee appreciation events’ may believe, on a rational level, that doing so is effective because their intentions are good. But employees may walk away feeling less engaged and energized than ever before.

That’s because the brain’s mirror neurons detect others’ actions, emotions, and even intentions; and recognize when care, support, and respect are present…as well as not present. So if employees don’t feel they’re valued, all the declarations in the world cannot make it true for them.

Taking time to understand what matters most to your employees–and then acting upon that information–is an effective way to show compassion and support. And the benefits are huge: Research shows that tapping into emotional engagement enables employees to offer you 400 percent more discretionary effort!

Seek tension, not harmony

The brain’s natural response to tension is to interpret it as a threat.

When tension emerges in the workplace–between departments, between people and tasks, or between budgets and deadlines–leaders often unwittingly slip into negative behaviors like overpowering employees, giving in to the tension entirely, or avoiding it altogether.

But believe it or not, the brain is energized by tension.

Why? Tension forces us to consider the opportunities between the current way and desired way of doing things. It can spark innovative thinking and be the source of creative energy and surprisingly amazing, sustainable solutions.

The challenge is for managers to learn to stand amid that tension–not to avoid it–and effectively manage competing priorities.

Practice partnering, not parenting

Just as it perceives tension, the emotional brain also perceives ‘shared responsibility’ as a risk. After all, to do so means relinquishing ownership and control, and risking one’s reputation.

Unfortunately, in response, supervisors often resort to parenting-like behaviors like manipulating and micro-managing employees: Essentially, treating people like children. This introduces negative and energy-depleting feelings like guilt and shame into the overall organizational culture.

By shifting to a ‘partnering’ managerial style in which everyone functions in adult-to-adult mode, both parties can co-author powerful solutions that employees are willing to adopt and implement. Essentially, partnering is about two people contracting to hold each other accountable for their impact on results, and their impact on relationships.

For example, if you’re a manager with an employee who is the ‘relationship guy,’ loved by everybody but not hitting his numbers, you partner with him and hold out for his highest good by holding him accountable for his impact on results. Or, if your employee is a ‘results maven,’ technically brilliant yet trampling her teammates and not living your organization`s corporate values, you hold out for her highest good by holding her accountable for her impact on relationships.

Essentially, partnering involves two people holding out for each other’s highest good. And it’s worth holding out for, because a person’s highest good is a combination of the two things that matter most: The relationships they build, and the results they generate.

A unique opportunity for startups

Startups have a unique opportunity to develop an ethos in the early days of forging a business. Unlike larger, older companies that may be fighting a workplace culture resistant to anything engagement-related, younger businesses can start with a cleaner slate.

Using brain science to manage energy instead of engagement, your organization can unlock passion, innovation, and enthusiasm in employees; generate true and sustainable engagement; and create a higher-performing workforce than you ever thought possible.

Brady Wilson is co-founder of Juice Inc., a corporate training company that services organizations from Toronto to Los Angeles. This article is based on principles from Brady’s latest book, Beyond Engagement: A Brain-Based Approach That Blends the Engagement Managers Want with the Energy Employees Need. Follow Brady on Twitter (@BradyJuiceInc) or visit