Brain Research Explores Employee Engagement


By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR December 13, 2010

To understand what really drives employee engagement—to get employees to go above and beyond the call of duty—look to the human brain.

That was the message that David Rock, CEO of Results Coaching and co-founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, shared during a Dec. 1, 2010, webinar hosted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

According to Rock, extensive research reveals that there is an organizing principle to the brain. As humans experience the world, the brain reacts in two possible ways: perceiving people, events and things as threats, or viewing them as sources of rewards. “Put simply, the brain is organized to keep us alive, and how it does that is that we try to minimize threat or danger first—and that’s the bigger response, the stronger response—and then we try to maximize reward,” he said. “You will be in a threat state or a reward state, or shifting between them in various ways, during all the interactions you have with the world.”

Why the Reward State Matters

Rock said that research has proven that, compared to those in the threat state, those in the reward state:

  • Have far more cognitive resources, meaning that they can do math faster, make decisions faster and process information more easily.
  • Have many more insights and can solve complex problems that require deep thinking.
  • Can generate more ideas.
  • Make fewer perceptual errors.

Those who are in the threat state, however, will experience disruption in multiple brain functions, leading to inattention and mistakes.

Engagement or disengagement will result depending on the combination of rewards and threats which individuals experience, according to Rock.


Rock studied and summarized extensive research from the field of social cognitive and effective neuroscience and developed the “SCARF” model in 2008 to describe the brain’s five primary threat and reward areas. SCARF stands for:

Status. Your sense of where you are in relation to people around you. “We don’t really value ourselves independently; we tend to value ourselves in relation to other people or in relation to ourselves in the past,” Rock said. When one’s status is high compared to those around them, therefore, they get a reward response, he said. By contrast, when someone gets a status threat they experience social pain that the brain registers like physical pain. Performance reviews and 360-degree feedback tend to create status threat, he noted.

Certainty. Humans love to predict things, according to Rock, so when they don’t know where something is going or what is going to happen it arouses a threat response. A small amount of information, however, can create a reward that offsets the threat. This is the key to change management, he explained. Regular communication, even if the communication doesn’t contain much new information, can help create a perception of certainty. “Every time we make sense of a situation we get a reward,” he said. “Every time a situation gets more unclear it creates a threat response.”

AutonomyThe feeling of being able to have a say in the future is important. An employee invited to attend a meeting will experience a threat reaction if they have no input in what the meeting is about or even the time it is being held, Rock explained. Thus, it’s important for those in positions of power to give people a perception of some autonomy without giving employees a thousand choices, he added.

Relatedness is the subconscious actof categorizing people as part of one’s “in group” or “out group”—or as friends or foes. We classify everyone this way, according to Rock, and we place them on a scale based on whether they are a very good friend or a slight friend. Yet foe is the default mode: “We tend to not trust people until proven otherwise,” he explained, though it’s pretty easy to change that as people share something personal with one another. This is an important point, he said, because people won’t feel empathy for or collaborate as effectively with foes.

Fairness, in and of itself, is a reward or threat, Rock said: “It doesn’t matter what you are being fair about. Unfairness is quite threatening in a big way.”

Each of these domains can activate reward or threat, he explained. People tend to have different views about which domains they feel most strongly about, in positive and negative terms.

Socially Driven Beings

“One of the big findings of the brain in the last decade is how surprisingly social our brains are,” Rock said, meaning that the reason why people tend to feel so strongly—positively and negatively—is because of individual social goals.

“We are far more socially driven than we realize,” he said. “Even something like money is assimilated back to our social goals.”

That’s why social media sites like Facebook are so popular, he added. “When you are not doing something actively you are thinking about yourself and other people and how everyone connects,” he said. “Social media [are] so successful because that’s what the brain likes to do when it’s not doing something else.”

Offsetting and Multiplier Effects

Rock noted that different elements of the SCARF model, when combined, can generate different effects. Threat reactions can be exacerbated when multiple domains are affected, such as when someone’s status is attacked publicly (relatedness) in a way they don’t understand (certainty).

Similarly, a threat in one domain can be offset by a reward in another. An environment of uncertainty, for example, can be offset by opportunities for increased relatedness among peers.

The good news, Rock said, is that it’s all about the perception of reward as opposed to the availability of real rewards. Once a manager knows which SCARF domains are most important to employees (which can be determined through a free self-assessment on a site such as or simply by getting to know someone), they can work to provide the kinds of rewards that meet individual needs.

Unexpected but regular rewards are best, he added, and they can be generated in small amounts.

The bad news, he said, is that the threat response is always the default response for the human brain, and it is stronger than the reward response. “Threats, once they kick in, are very hard to dislodge,” he said.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Related Articles:

Study Reveals Characteristics of Disengaged Workers, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, Sept. 3, 2010

The ‘What’ and ‘Why’ of Employee Engagement, SHRM Online Employee Relations Discipline, March 4, 2009

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