Skip to main content
leadership lab

This column is part of Globe Careers' Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at

Your employees may be engaged, dedicated, and committed. But are they energized enough to do their best work?

To create a truly engaged culture, businesses must focus on both engagement and energy – essentially, moving beyond engagement, as we know it today. Based on brain science, here are 10 leadership principles to approach engagement differently – and reap the business rewards of a higher-performing organization.

Manage energy, not engagement

Our brain's "executive function" enables us to analyze info, focus attention, regulate emotions and make smart decisions. When we are low on energy, the E/F is the first to go.

Traditionally, engagement initiatives focus on getting employees to give more discretionary effort. But effort without energy spawns duct-tape fixes, work-arounds and fire-fighting – the perfect ecosystem for depletion. Leaders who shift from managing engagement to managing energy can fuel passion and innovation in employees, generating sustainable, day-to-day engagement.

Deliver experiences, not promises

Often, leaders gravitate toward elaborate programs and systems that don't deliver on the promise of fixing issues. This creates employee cynicism – and they begin to see engagement as nothing more than a con game.

By delivering experiences, not just promises, to employees, leaders address that cynicism and generate energy that has no best-before date.

Target emotion, not logic

The limbic system – the brain's emotional centre – gives us an uncanny knack for recognizing care, support and respect. It also helps us recognize when care, support and respect are simply being declared by another person.

Employee engagement initiatives that target the rational brain ignore the importance of the emotional brain in defining each individual's day-to-day experience. By tapping in to emotional engagement, leaders can energize employees to give more discretionary effort.

Trust conversations, not surveys

Businesses that rely on annual engagement surveys only get a snapshot of the employee experience – they do not generate the intel necessary to get each employee to do their best work.

Instead, leaders should consider holding frequent, face-to-face, conversations with employees. Science shows quality conversation can release high-performance hormones in the brain; hormones that promote trust, focus and creativity. Conversation can deepen the leader-employee relationship, energizing employees and unlocking results.

Seek tension, not harmony

The brain's natural response to tension is to interpret it as a threat. As such, leaders often respond to tension by slipping into unhealthy behaviours like overpowering others, accommodating, or avoiding it altogether.

But our brains are actually energized by tension. Tension can make us see things differently – and spark innovative thinking by looking at competing priorities. When leaders learn to stand amid and harness inter-office tension, organizations can yield amazing solutions.

Practice partnering, not parenting

The emotional brain regards "shared responsibility" as a risk. So, when timelines are tight and stakes are high, managers often slip into parenting-type behaviours. This negatively affects employees' willingness to offer discretionary effort, and inhibits their ability to access their executive function.

By shifting to a "partnering" managerial style (treating employees in an adult-to-adult mode), both parties can co-author powerful solutions that everyone is willing to adopt and implement. And to boot, managers recoup time and mind-space.

Pull out the back story, not the action plan

Meaningful conversation has many benefits, including offering leaders with a clear understanding behind engagement scores. However, organizations often jump to action without context, creating "one-size-only" action plans that are practically guaranteed to generate employee resistance to any engagement initiative.

Before drafting any plans, leaders should draw out the back story behind engagement scores.

Think sticks, not carrots

The brain is highly reactive to any sense of threat. But engagement does not traditionally focus on removing bullying, unresolved conflict and team tension – factors that interfere with employees' ability to fully access their knowledge, experience, skills and strengths.

Instead of offering "carrots" like recognition, cheerleading and inspiration, leaders need to be "thinking sticks" – that is, by identifying the psychological forms of interference that fractionalize employee performance.

Meet needs, not scores

When employees' needs go unmet, they may act out in unskillful ways – forming cliques, gossiping and creating friction. These things permeate the organization with interference, negatively impacting employee performance.

These behaviours cannot be dealt with by reviewing and responding to organization-wide survey scores. Leaders who take time to identify and meet individual needs can buoy employees' energy, saving themselves precious time dealing with inter-office conflict.

Challenge beliefs, not emotions

Our brains do not allot us the resources to do something unless we are convinced it is possible. Negative employee beliefs can produce low levels of self-efficacy, bringing engagement initiatives to a standstill. But according to science, it is not our capability but our belief in our capability that makes us effective.

Through meaningful conversation, leaders can recalibrate employees' unhelpful beliefs – targeting their personal feelings of self-doubt, second-guessing and frayed confidence – producing a greater sense of agency throughout the work force.

Brady Wilson is co-founder of Juice Inc., a corporate training company.