Our Brains at Work: Using Neuroscience to Drive Employee Experience

Considering the makeup of our brains at work can drive specific actions that increase employee satisfaction.  Leveraging these actions will increase the chances of a positive employee experience – even during tough changes.

Recently, Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai put out a memo to employees to give strategic direction for the next year. It highlights the fact that economic headwinds are driving the need to slow hiring and consolidate investments on key initiatives. Pichai shares some poignant words that quickly became viral: “Scarcity breeds clarity.”  While such messages seem grave, they are also brave.

I believe there is more good than harm in being so transparent. Google consistently receives accolades for building amazing employee experiences, with free perks like massages, sushi, commuter buses, and infinity pools. That said, I think their candid messages on company strategy are some of the top drivers of engagement, even when those messages are tough to digest.

If you define the drivers of “employee experience,” I suspect the first things to come to mind are amazing work perks, high flexibility, effective leadership, strong organization culture and competitive total rewards. We can debate what makes it different from “employee engagement,” where it seems work perks are overused levers with little gain on the annual engagement survey. I’m not sure it’s worth the exercise to delimitate the two. I do believe there is value in getting to the root of what drives employee satisfaction, no matter the label we put on it.

Five Elements of Satisfaction in the Employee Experience

Getting to the root of employee satisfaction is a valuable exercise given the challenge of hiring and retaining top talent. Thankfully, the field of neuroleadership has evolved significantly in recent decades and continues to give us insight in this space. By considering the makeup of our brains – particularly our brains at work – we can discover specific actions that increase employee satisfaction. David Rock’s work creating the SCARF model is a good place to start. Although created nearly 15 years ago, these elements still resonate even as work and workplaces have evolved during the pandemic.

These five elements of SCARF activate the brain’s reward circuitry – like with gaining money – when things are going good. They also activate a threat response – like that caused by physical pain – when things are going bad. SCARF elements can be defined as:

  • Status, or relative importance to others.
  • Certainty, an ability to predict the future.
  • Autonomy, a sense of control over events.
  • Relatedness, a sense of safety with others – of friend rather than foe.
  • Fairness, a perception of fair exchanges between people.

The SCARF Model in Action

In the Google memo example, we can see how the organization leverages a few of these elements. From a status perspective, this memo is made broadly available. It is not just available to senior leaders to signal change is coming. Instead, every employee is given equal access with details that led to this shift in direction. 

The memo itself speaks to the fact that an “uncertain global economic outlook has been top of mind.” However, Pichai gives some certainty in the pivot by listing specific roles that would receive continued investment, such as engineering. He also shares details on what will pause, such as new product development.  

There is a call for automony and a request to find relatedness in others with a reminder that “our culture [has] never viewed these types of challenges as obstacles.” The memo asks employees to “be more entrepreneurial, working with greater urgency, sharper focus, and more hunger than we’ve shown on sunnier days.” Most importantly, the call to action emphasizes that “making the company more efficient is up to all of us.”

How is this increasing fairness, you may wonder? That likely remains to be seen, but there is a promise of “creating more ways for you all to engage and share ideas to help, so stay tuned”. My bet is people will indeed find there is a fair way to contribute ideas and stay involved in the change.

SCARF-related leadership actions are a great starting point for engaging your team. High-involvement, inclusive change approaches organically leverage many of these elements. High-EQ leaders also inherently think this way. It should not be a burden to bake these natural neuro drivers into your transformation efforts. The next time you have a pivot in strategy to communicate, we suggest you reference the SCARF elements and see how many you can embed in your change strategy. Leveraging these factors will increase the chances of a positive employee experience – even during tough changes – by considering how our brains work at work.