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The Supervisory Relationship is the Key to Employee Engagement

I begin this blog with a declaration that I intend to validate throughout the body of this entry: The key to employee engagement is emotional commitment which is in turn most closely linked to discretionary effort.Rewards, transactional positive reinforcement (supervisor occasionally using verbal reinforcement), and incentives in general do not change behavior in the long term; the biochemistry of the brain—serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters—the chemicals of employee engagement, of emotions and learning—are most effectively catalyzed through ongoing manager activities and attributes. Reinforcing work dialogs, which in turn build reinforcing manager-employee relationships, are the most effective means of eliciting employee emotional commitment to the job and the organization.

In 2004, the Corporate Leadership Council published a study—Driving Employee Performance and Retention through Engagement: A Quantitative Analysis of the Effectiveness of Employee Engagement Strategies. They surveyed 50,000 employees in 59 organizations within 27 countries.These data support the results of many other studies on employee engagement: Individual acts of reward and reinforcement do not compensate for a negative relationship with one’s organization or one’s manager. The best way to achieve emotional commitment from employees is through the creation of an emotionally nurturing organizational environment—a “reinforcing environment,” a history of reinforcement--a reinforcing relationship.

Neuroscience and neuropsychologists—through new technologies like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), positron emission topography (PET), and wave analysis can study reward and fear centers in the brain—in real time. The results of their research are finally being translated into management practices. The March, 2008, issue of H.R. Magazine has an article entitled, “The Brain at Work.” The article describes what happens in the brain when we have differing experiences at work—when someone says or does something positive or does something we don't like.

The article reports that when employees experience “social fairness and respect,” the neurotransmitter serotonin is released in the brain’s “reward pathway” creating a sense of well being in much the same way drugs and alcohol do. The association between a pleasant sensation and an environmental stimulus (someone saying or doing something we like) conditions a positive association with the stimulus (the person who said or did something we like). We feel good about that person—the positive emotion that facilitates emotional engagement.

When we are exposed to positive stimuli—when serotonin is coursing through our axioms and dendrites—the brain is in a positive mode to think, decide, create, and learn. Negative stimuli—someone criticizing, mocking, berating, or disrespecting us—create an opposite effect; our brain falls into a fetal position and its efficiency is crippled. Learning is facilitated by the neurotransmitters that are secreted when employees are provided some ownership in change processes; if they are told what to do, facilitative connections are repressed and resistance is evoked. Neuroscientists seem to be corroborating what our intuition tells us.

Since positive emotions are associated with high levels of employee engagement, and subsequently discretionary effort, it is clear that effective positive reinforcement enables that emotion-building process. Although the article states that “social fairness and respect” create serotonin-induced positive emotions, the author neglects to point out that social fairness and respect are abstract concepts which cannot be directly observed. Only the verbal behavior that represents them can be directly seen, heard, and perceived. I only know that you are fair if you “say or do” (a behavior) something that I hear and interpret as fair; that’s when the neurotransmitters start to flow.

My perceptions of being fairly treated and respected are cumulative; if you say 10 thoughtlessly critical things to me, one positive comment does not lead me to feel respected.Many organizations are trying to use rewards and recognition strategies and management positive reinforcement policies to compensate for negative organizational strategies and policies or for dysfunctional supervisory-employee relations--circumstances that create negative employee emotions and disengagement. In the end, it does not work.It is expensive and you add a new problem; the institutionalization of tactics that do not solve your original problem and money off the bottom line.

A supervisor, manager or leader is in a pivotal position to compensate for punitive organizational policies and practices through diplomatic verbal comments—using reinforcing work dialogs. Similarly, supervisors with poor interaction skills can destroy the well-intended efforts of organizations who have committed to positive employee strategies and policies. Conversely, a supervisor is well positioned to help employees sidestep the negativity of a toxic organization. No matter what you do to make your organization one that fosters employee engagement, the failure to create meaningful dialogs between your supervisors and employees will restrict your best efforts.The issue will not go away.

The Reinforcing Work Dialogs I have been discussing in the past few blogs are a powerful tool for creating employee emotional engagement in the organization. They provide a vehicle for continuous, interactive, participative feedback and communication from one’s supervisor or manager. The dialogs provide a comfortable, credible context for positive reinforcement—positive comments about employee performance and contribution—for demonstrating respect for the person and valuing of his or her job.

Positive reinforcement, properly delivered, is a continuous source of performance-encouraging, relationship-building serotonin. The neurology of fairness and respect reside in one’s history of interactions with one’s boss. Sparse contact, little or no communication or feedback, autocratic social style—all this creates a context that makes transactional reinforcement (the occasional positive comment about one’s job) destructive instead of constructive.

The reinforcing relationship created by effective work dialogs, creates the foundation to optimize employee emotional engagement and to support and facilitate all the key employee engagement drivers. It provides supervisors with an opportunity to reinforce discrete contributive behaviors--one behavior at a time.