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Social pain
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Should employers be trying to minimise social pain at work?

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27th Aug 2015
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In this interview, Jamie Lawrence, editor, HRZone, interviews Charles DeNault, Senior Director of Product Marketing at Saba Software, responsible for researching solutions and educating customers on Saba’s learning and talent management products. Charles discusses a range of workplace issues including neuroscience, talent management and the importance of minimising social pain in the workplace.

Charles has spoken on a variety of topics including employee engagement, coaching and development and social learning. Prior to Saba, Charles defined and launched learning and collaboration solutions at SuccessFactors, WebEx, and Apple. Charles has a B.S. in Mathematical and Computational Sciences and an M.S. in Operations Research from Stanford University. 

Jamie Lawrence: We’re hearing a lot about neuroscience and talent management these days – why?

Charles DeNault: As the economy improves, demand for top talent is increasing, and hiring is more competitive. Employee satisfaction is crucial to minimizing turnover and ensuring that your workforce can keep up with the faster pace of business. Neuroscience can help determine which business practices keep employees engaged and motivated, and which ones don’t.

Jamie Lawrence: Can you explain the link between brain research and employee motivation?

Charles DeNault: Sure. First, note that how we live today is different from how our ancestors lived. Historically, people were most concerned with surviving day-to-day. Finding food and shelter was challenging, and acute threats such as wild animals were common. In these situations, our bodies respond automatically – adrenaline flows, heart rate quickens – our bodies prepare to either fight or flee.

When our bodies go on high alert like that, the brain shuts down higher level thought processes while we deal with the threat. Of course, we do occasionally encounter similar physical threats today, but they are much more rare, and things we react to as threats typically are more benign. What’s important to note is that it can take hours to recover, physiologically, from that kind of threat response.

Research by Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Leiberman at UCLA [PDF] has been key to connecting the threat response to the workplace. They devised a computer game in which a human subject and two computer “players” throw a ball around until, after a while, the computer players stop throwing to the human subject. When that happens, the subject experiences social pain. Being part of group or tribe was critical to our ancestors’ survival, so it’s not surprising that we respond negatively to social exclusion. They used MRI technology to show that this kind of social pain affects the same parts of our brains as physical pain, in very similar ways.

Jamie Lawrence: How is this related to employee motivation?

Charles DeNault: Work environments often create social pain, which is harmful in terms of engagement and productivity. Managerial reprimands, unsurprisingly, cause social pain and trigger a threat response, but appraisals and even routine task assignments also do this. Until the physical symptoms subside and the body calms down, the employee tends to be disengaged and unproductive. Repeated social pain perpetuates disengagement, as a means of self-protection.

Jamie Lawrence: But obviously we need to assign tasks, appraise performance, and even reprimand employees at times, without diminishing their motivation. How do we do this while minimizing social pain?

Charles DeNault: We need to look at the goal of each of these activities and focus on that, rather than putting the burden on employees to “suck it up”. The goal is to influence behavior, provide feedback, and help improve performance, and different ways of interaction could achieve that much more effectively. Research by Edward Deci, a psychology professor at the University of Rochester, has identified three fundamental needs: competence, autonomy and relatedness. “Competence” means that we want to feel we’re good at doing certain things, and “autonomy” means that we like to have some control over what tasks we work on and the way we work on them. “Relatedness” is Deci’s term for our need, as humans, to be a valued part of our group.

Jamie Lawrence: Can you give an example of how these three needs play out?

Charles DeNault: Not everything we do can be easily mapped to all three needs, but there is one that I refer to as the “team stretch” goal. Last year, our marketing department undertook a rebranding effort for Saba. That meant everyone needed to make a number of contributions – we needed new messaging, new colors, every page on our website needed to be redone, dozens of documents needed to be rewritten, etc. We had an aggressive timeline, but we all stepped up and did what was needed. In the end, we succeeded, and employee feedback indicated that everyone felt good about the project.

The project appealed to employees’ competence – our writers needed to write well and quickly, our creative team needed to take us in a new direction – everyone had to do what they were competent at. The goals were clear to everyone, but each person had the autonomy to work through their items in ways that they viewed as optimal. And because we were all in it together – meeting, comparing notes and helping each other along the way – our sense of relatedness was high. While it meant long hours for all of us, I think we were all quite happy not only with the result but also with our contributions.

Jamie Lawrence: Every day work can’t be driven by a constant stream of stretch goals – we’d all burn out. What about more routine assignments, appraisals, and reprimands? How should we do these things so we don’t cause social pain?

Charles DeNault: In the case of reprimands, consider your goal: you probably really want to influence employees to behave or work in a different way. Rather than punish and be critical, appeal to their needs for competence and autonomy. Point out a project where the employee was successful and see whether they can structure their current work more like their past successes. In so doing, recognize that the past successful project and the current one are not the same, so you need to give them the autonomy to find the best way of solving the problem.

Jamie Lawrence: And the manager could offer support and suggest experts to reach out to, touching on relatedness. Right? What about appraisals?

Charles DeNault: Well, being judged tends to feel threatening – it makes us question our competence, especially when it happens infrequently. Most organizations review employee performance annually, so it doesn’t feel informal or routine, and added stress comes from tying compensation to appraisals. Further, most companies use appraisals to identify low performers, and then discipline them or let them go. Since that normally only involves a small proportion of employees, it creates unneeded (and counter-productive) stress for the majority of employees who are doing their jobs well, and for them, the review process is really intended to give feedback so they can continue to improve at their jobs. For all these reasons feedback ideally should happen much more frequently – every week if possible.

Jamie Lawrence: And for routine task assignments – how are those threatening? And how do we remedy that?

Charles DeNault: Assigning tasks tends to be perceived as counter to autonomy. The key when assigning tasks is to talk more about the project goals and less about specific methods. Discuss criteria that would define success, and encourage employees to find the best ways to attain successful outcomes. Of course if there are specific things that need to be done in particular ways, the manager will have to make that clear, but allow for as much autonomy as possible and appeal to their competence, e.g., “I thought you’d be able to do this really well because of your good work on this previous project.” One more thought on this is to emphasize what the employee might learn by accomplishing the task being assigned. Learning is a great, as it should happen in a low stress environment. It helps employees improve their competence and makes us more valuable.

Jamie Lawrence: Any closing thoughts on how to get started?

Charles DeNault: This is an opportunity for the HR department to lead. Improving the ways managers and their teams interact will affect the organizational culture, but generally in positive ways. However, it needs to be thought through beforehand, because it isn’t a quick fix but instead a comprehensive look at all programs including manager training. Odds are the latter will have to be reworked along with other programs. Many companies are giving a good look how they can improve their performance management and review process, and incorporating these findings from neuroscience fits quite well there.

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