Q: Is the workplace a business or social enterprise?

A: The workplace is both (according to Dr David Rock, who holds a professional doctorate in the Neuroscience of Leadership, is CEO of the NeuroLeadership Group and co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute).

The concept of paid work stems purely and solely from the business needs of organisations who have employed staff to provide labour or other skills in exchange for some reward – usually money.

Rock explains that where the primary motivator to work has mainly been held as the ability to earn money in order to satisfy the human need for physical survival (food & shelter – think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs), research now shows that social acceptance and connectedness are highly correlated to the concept of survival. If we combine this research with the fact that people spend the majority of their time in workplaces interacting with other people, it is not surprising that the workplace is the venue or vehicle by which people fulfil their instinctive need for socialising.

So while employers see work as something which meets the economic needs for survival and growth of a business and their view of work is driven by facts, figures, data and business trends, employees see work first and foremost as something which meets their personal social needs for survival.

The analytical and profit driven components of a business have essentially been hijacked by employees who have a more values driven approach and instinctively use work as a place or network for socialising.

What are the implications for workplaces?

Positive social interactions are recognised as a strong source of engagement and motivation for the majority of employees. So strong in fact that many employees lose sight of the economic transactional reasons for which they were employed.

Negative social interactions are recognised as sources of pain, distress and suffering. Rock explains that research has shown when humans experience distress or suffering from social interactions, the same region of the brain is activated as with physical pain. 

It is not surprising then that social pain is a strong source of de-engagement and de-motivation and as such, many employees will manipulate situations to avoid social pain.

The technical aspects of a person’s work has become entwined with making friends, falling out with friends, gossiping, determining who one likes or dislikes, building allies, snubbing enemies and making demands linked to preferences for who they will and won’t work with.

Managers have long known that if they fall on the ‘wrong side’ of an employee, they will be given the ‘cold shoulder’ and will be more likely to experience conflict– which not only leads the manager to feel ‘social pain’ but also reduces their chances of getting optimal performance from that employee.

Many managers armed with this knowledge (from past personal experience or from watching others) often then try too hard to be friends with everyone. More emphasis is placed on friendship rather than professionalism, on being ‘nice’ rather than constructive, on being ‘liked’ rather than managing to get the job done.

Who can blame them? Managers are human too.

Managers blind sighted by their own and other’s instinctive social needs, inadvertently allow a culture where socialising at work takes priority over work tasks and being ‘nice’ hinders the provision of constructive feedback, learning and growth. When this happens there is a decrease in work performance and overall business aligned achievements.

Unfortunately, the instinctive need for socialising and avoiding social pain usually leads to conflict and more pain.

This conflict and pain breeds from:

-          Experiences of negative personal social interactions and our inherent need to defend ourselves from further pain (usually by avoidance or inflicting pain on others – for example staff ‘hurt’ by colleagues then treat those colleagues disrespectfully);

-          Management words or actions that trigger in a staff member some distress or suffering in the social part of their brain; and

-          The discontent felt when managers act to re-establish professional workplace boundaries around the social sphere which has become bigger than and engulfed the business enterprise the workplace was initially established to be.

I concur with Rock that managers who understand the social needs of their staff, have the ability to elicit reward responses (not  pain responses) in the social part of the brain, while maintaining professional workplace boundaries and professional business practices will be the leaders in their organisations who can orchestrate continued engagement and productivity within their teams.

In today’s economic climate, businesses must retain and engage their valuable staff members and continue to make productivity gains. How will business leaders achieve this if they are not aware of and cannot manage a workplace that is, in reality, a social enterprise?

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This blog combines elements of David Rock’s work as referenced in ‘Managing with the Brain in Mind’ (Strategy + Business, Issue 56, Autumn 2009) and my own anecdotal evidence garnished from working with numerous organisations and the conversations I have had with Senior Leaders who notice and struggle with this phenomenon but have had no real understanding of why it is happening in their workplaces.

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