How To Survive The Great Resignation

The Neuroscience of why employees are leaving and how to improve working experience.

UK job vacancies have soared to an all-time high, with employees changing jobs or leaving the workforce completely in their droves.

Do you want smart people to stay? Then make them feel safe. Keeping employees feeling safe is much more than running the monthly fire drill. What employees are seeking is psychological safety, a term first coined by Amy Edmondson. Advancements in brain research can now provide scientific rationale for why we need to create a safe environment that encourages employee retention.

The brain is hardwired to keep us safe. When we feel safe both physically and psychologically, we are able to think clearly, solve problems, be creative and innovative. When we feel safe we are smarter people. And that’s exactly what organisations need. Smart people.

However, if we are working in an environment that an employee’s brain perceives as being unsafe, the employee will more than likely be shifting their thoughts and emotions away from being smart, to seek a way to protect themselves and feel safe again. In doing so, the once smart employee becomes disengaged, lacks accountability, becomes cynical, demotivated and begrudgingly compliant. Okay, you might want this person to leave. But employees rarely join organisations like this. They become like this. And by leaving your organisation risks loss of knowledge and talent not to mention the investment in their onboarding. Worse still this disengaged employee may stay and you are no longer paying for the smart employee that you recruited a few years ago.

Although my research showed that individuals also have a role to play in managing their own levels of safety, over 60% of an employee’s psychological safety comes from their working environment. The brain is constantly scanning its surroundings for potential threats to enable us to respond quickly to protect ourselves (the fight or flight response). However, often organisations are unwittingly sending out messages that the brain is hardwired to interpret as a threat.

Today’s agile, dispersed and ever-changing organisation may be designed to be able to respond to the volatile and ambiguous environment in which they are operating. However, this design can fall foul of one or all of the five hardwired psychological safety needs triggering the brain’s threat response.

Psychological Safety Need 1: Consistency

Constant change is prevalent and necessary for an organisation’s survival. Change is also important for humans: we change all the time, and the brain is exceptionally flexible, known as neuroplasticity. So employees can change. It is a lack of consistency that the brain is hardwired to perceive as a threat. When receiving conflicting messages, it’s a wise move for the brain to err on the side of caution. What messages are you communicating to your employees? What story are you sharing? What language is being used? Is this uniform across all areas of the business? Do actions support this story? Are the behaviours across your leadership team consistent? Are processes and norms applied in a consistent way? When words and deeds don’t match, this reduces employee safety. The natural response to this is to find somewhere that does feel safe.

Psychological Safety Need 2: Connectedness

Amy Edmondson in her original studies on psychological safety did so in the context of teams, demonstrating the importance of collaborative and supportive colleagues. The human species is a social animal, seeking safety in numbers. Connectedness is important for a sense of safety. The brain even rewards positive interactions with the feel-good hormone oxytocin. Conversely, relationships that lack trust will trigger a threat response.  Leaders need to demonstrate empathy, ethics, emotional intelligence and be authentic. Servant leadership was found to be a strong predictor of employee engagement throughout the Covid Pandemic. To enable connectedness, leaders in organisations need an “Ego-lite” ethos.  Leaders should park the need for control, status, “being right” and authority. These diminish connectedness. 

Psychological Safety Need 3: Control

The human brain sees a lack of control as a potential threat. The command and control leader triggers a threat response. Are your employees treated like responsible adults or disobedient children? If your employees don’t feel in control of their job, their career, their success or their rewards then they are likely to find somewhere they do. Does every employee know the boundaries of their role, what they are (and aren’t) responsible for? The concept of a boundaryless organisation merely results in a lack of clarity as to who does what, creating insecurity and uncertainty around role and competence. People will seek out environments where there is a clearly defined arena over which they have control.

Psychological Safety Need 4: Competence

We have all experienced the threat response kicking in around competence. Just think of the last time someone wanted to give you feedback. Often, the instantaneous response (defensiveness, aggression, fear) is the brain sending us a message that there may be an incoming threat. Feeling competent, or having self-efficacy has been proven to be correlated with engagement, job fulfilment and account for up to 30% of an individuals’ psychological safety. And feeling competent will also contribute to a sense of control. Do your employees have access to skills development? When implementing new systems or processes is enough time provided for learning and upskilling?  Importantly, do you have a culture of learning? Are people able to Flourish? What are the consequences of mistakes? If people are afraid to fail, they are afraid to learn, innovate and grow their competence and ability.

Psychological Safety Need 5: Cause 

If you want your employees to be engaged and committed to their roles, they need to know why they are doing it. Having a meaningful purpose has been shown to create fulfilment, wellbeing and job satisfaction. Without understanding cause the brain will assume that there is a potential threat to the body’s emotional, physical and cognitive resources; they may be wasted on something that will not aid survival. Can your employees articulate the purpose of their role not only for the company but for themselves as well (not just money!). 

People who feel safe at work, are less likely to seek to leave. Why would they? After all, feeling safe allows us to thrive, to grow, to connect and to drive our destinies. Creating a psychologically safe environment is a systemic endeavour that involves behaviours, processes, norms, values and communication. But it starts with your leaders being skilled in Story, developing Arena, allowing people to Flourish and most importantly be self-aware enough to create an Ego-Lite ethos.

About the author:

Dr Sam Mather is a Neuro-practitioner, Leadership Consultant and author of Rise Together: A leader’s guide to the science behind creating innovative, engaged and resilient employees.

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