change in the workplace
© Anan Sudsaithong |

Hilary Scarlett, speaker, author and consultant at Scarlett & Grey, provides an insight into how we can manage change in the workplace and highlights the importance of belonging, with a specific focus on neuroscience

Relationships matter, and in more ways and more profoundly than perhaps most of us realise. We ‘get it’ in our personal lives, that relationships are important and that, on the whole, when relationships are good then life is good. However, we seem to forget this in the workplace and expect employees to walk through the workplace door and to switch off the need for social connection. But we don’t. We are deeply social creatures and social connection has a profound impact on our ability to perform, collaborate and persevere.

Neuroscience, the study of the nervous system including the brain, although still in its infancy, is already providing significant insights into what helps us to perform at our best. Research studies reveal why we find organisational change so hard. In part, this is because our brains crave certainty and want to be able to predict so that they can better protect us from potential threats. Change undermines our ability to predict and our brains don’t like it. It’s almost as if an ‘error alert’ goes off in our brains when faced with uncertainty, and they can’t quite settle again until they have certainty. Choice and autonomy are also important to the brain, and much organisational change feels imposed upon employees. Again, our brains don’t like it when they feel we are losing control; they go into ‘flight or fight’ where our brains are in survival mode and are unable to think clearly.

In times of significant change, leaders might feel they cannot offer certainty because there is little or none. They might also feel that they cannot offer much autonomy or choice. It becomes all the more important then to improve the quality of our interactions at work – one area we all have some control over.

Why does social connection matter so much to our brains?

Science reveals various reasons why we have evolved to be such deeply social creatures.  One point is that we are mammals. We all start out in life as babies and would not make it through our first months and years of life without someone providing for us. Babies know this. They will scream and cry when they are tired and hungry but babies will also cry when they are separated from their caregiver because this person is important for their survival. So, as babies we are acutely aware of the importance of social connection and this awareness carries on throughout life. “Is my manager interested in me? If they are, I’m ok. If they are not, I’m not ok”.

Another reason why our brains are so concerned about our social connections is that they have changed little since our ancestors lived on the savannah. Our savannah-brains know that if the tribe keeps us ‘in’, our chances of survival are improved. If the tribe throws us out, we are much less likely to make it. Here again, our brains are constantly checking out “Do I fit in? Do I belong?” If we feel excluded, our brains feel vulnerable and threatened.

Social pain is real pain to the brain

This social pain is far more ‘real’ than most of us realise. We tend to think of social pain and physical pain as being two distinct phenomena – we consider a headache as being very different from feeling excluded from the team. But our brains do not distinguish in the same way: brain scans show that the same parts of the pain network are activated in both physical pain or social pain (Lieberman & Eisenberger, 2009). To the brain, both kinds of pain are significant in terms of our survival and so it processes them in a similar way. Moreover, the paracetamol that we take to relieve headaches also reduces the hurt we feel when we are socially rejected (DeWall et al 2010) – social pain is that real to the brain.

Our social brains – what can we do?

Keeping in mind that we are such deeply social creatures, what are some of the things that we can do to get people’s brains ‘back on track’ during the working day?

  1. Perform an act of kindness

Chancellor et al (2017) explored the impact of asking some people in a Spanish company to perform five kind acts over the course of four weeks. Both the receivers and the givers of the kind acts reported improvements in their well-being in the short term and in the long term eg two months later receivers were happier and givers were less depressed and more satisfied with their work and lives, compared with a control group. In addition, receivers were more likely to perform small acts of kindness to others. Small acts of kindness can be contagious in the workplace.

  1. ‘Together’

Research in 2014 by Carr and Walton of Stanford University revealed a way to put people’s brains into a positive place, simply by the use of the word ‘together’. Initially people worked together and then moved on to work on difficult tasks separately. One group was told that they were working on the task ‘together’ with others even though they were in a separate room. The members of the other group were just left alone. The people who had been told that they were working on the problem ‘together’, worked 48% longer and solved more problems correctly than the members of the other group. They also stated that they enjoyed the tasks more. The very word ‘together’ seems to activate the reward centre of the brain, making us feel we belong. It does not take a huge effort to create this sense of belonging. We just need subtle cues that allow us to think of ourselves as part of a team.

  1. Ask a question

Researchers (Tamir and Mitchell, 2012) have found that talking about ourselves is rewarding to the brain. So ask someone what they think about something or for an opinion.

  1. Have a bit of fun with the team

Laughter is a great de-stressor for the brain. Research conducted by Oswald et al showed that making people laugh improved their productivity by about 12%.

  1. Small interactions matter

Research by Sandstrom and Dunn in 2014 shows that even small interactions with strangers boost our sense of mental well-being. So, each friendly word with a colleague, the person from whom we buy our coffee – anyone for that matter – helps both us and them.


Hilary Scarlett


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