employee engagement

The Role of the Limbic System at Work

What do you think drives employee behavior? Pay raises? Happy hours? Free coffee? It’s possible these perks can boost your team’s moment-to-moment happiness, and they are certainly nice benefits. But, when it comes to getting work done – and retaining your best performers – will lattes influence their long-term behavior?

The answer is no.

What truly drives behavior is the limbic system.

What is the limbic system?

Let’s start at the beginning. The limbic system, in your midbrain, includes the subcortical systems that oversee our emotional lives and is an important player in what we learn and commit to memory. It helps us make sense of the world, particularly in terms of emotional experience and our felt sense of being safe or unsafe. What leaders need to know about the limbic system is, first, that is has control precedence in the brain (it can override other brain functions when triggered), and second, that the limbic system has no idea whether it’s at home or work. Stated more plainly, emotions cannot be removed from the workplace, and they certainly should not be ignored.

The limbic system is an emotional processing supercomputer (faster, actually). It’s also the heart and soul of the fight, flight, or freeze mechanism. It’s constantly vigilant for things that could be harmful. It’s not very exact or deliberate in its assessment of danger; rather, it tends to make snap judgments that assume and exaggerate threats that may not be real. Researchers say it favors “false positives.” Even the slightest hint of threat or uncertainty can cause us to lose our rational, thoughtful response system in favor of a more primal emotional response.

How does the limbic system drive our behavior?

We see the effects of the limbic system play out in the workplace every day as employees assume the worst when their manager ignores them (the manager was actually just preoccupied) or they are “excluded” from an “important” meeting (the manager just didn’t want to waste the employee’s time), or after a particularly pointed feedback conversation (where they might assume they are about to get fired). Every leader in the organization needs to be more attuned to these powerful drivers of emotional distractions, resulting in everything from more workplace accidents to increased health problems.

Dr. James Coan, University of Virginia professor and father of Social Baseline Theory, lightheartedly says the limbic system is asking two questions all day long: “What’s next?” and “How am I doing?” These two questions, broad generalizations drawn from his own research and observation and dozens of other studies about brain function, are remarkably helpful for leaders looking for actionable models to improve workplace engagement.

Why does it function this way?

The question of How am I doing? stems from our biological operating system that includes the encoded need to be in a group. Naturally, since the group’s social resources are so essential for our survival, the limbic brain is constantly assessing our membership status. “Am I in?” it asks. “Do they see me? Am I valued? Do they perceive me as a worthy and unique contributor?” The limbic system doesn’t ask this question occasionally; it asks the question every minute of every day.

Effective leaders can answer this question for their employees with predictability and consistency. When a manager validates and gives recognition to an employee, it’s not just a gratuitous social gesture. He or she is talking directly to the limbic system; the message carries limbic resonance – “You’ve been notice. You are seen and valued by one of the leaders of the tribe. You are safe, carry on.”

To understand the brain’s question of “What’s next?” ask yourself: If you don’t know what’s coming next, do you feel more safe or less safe? Most people would say they would feel less safe. Leaders need to answer this question more effectively for their employees. Whenever managers become more predictable, consistent, and transparent, they provide clarity on what will happen next. Whenever leaders seek closer alignment around core values, mission, and vision, they are creating a consistent and predictable culture with immediate limbic benefits. 

What is the role of emotion?

The need to avoid social, or emotional, isolation is universal and ubiquitous – it affects all human beings whether at home or at work. This hunger for connection, a prosocial frame that surrounds everything we feel, think, and do, has what neuroscientists call control precedence in the brain. It is not simply a goal or objective – it’s a behavioral imperative. 

Emotional isolation is devastating to the human nervous system. Emotional isolation disrupts sleep patterns, increases stress hormones, and raises the risk of stroke by 32 percent and heart disease by 29 percent. It has been labeled a public health hazard, and the magazine Psychology Today referred to it as a “modern plague.”

Our limbic system does not differentiate between isolation at home or at work. A workplace that fails to create a culture of engagement is one prone to isolation, eventually leading to disengagement. Establish a felt sense of community at work through genuine connection with your employees, asking them about their families, their interests, and also giving them recognition, so they feel like valued members of your work tribe.

Key Takeaways

  • The limbic system is always on the lookout for danger and has control precedence in the brain. It does not differentiate between being at home or being at work, so there is no way to separate emotions (or the need for mental and emotional safety) from the workplace.
  • The brain is constantly asking: “What’s next?” and “How am I doing?” Leaders can answer these questions by behaving in a consistent and predictable manner and offering validation, recognition, and feedback.
  • Emotional isolation is devastating to engagement. Create a culture of engagement at work to see increased productivity and positivity.
  • Leaders play a critical role in reducing emotional isolation by fostering safe and secure relationships at work. 

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